High Times Ahead: Marijuana Use in the NFL

via www.cannabis-pics.com

It was 1995. Warren Sapp was the nation's top defensive prospect and a surefire top 5 pick. Then, on March 13, just 40 days before the draft, reports were leaked to the press that he tested positive for marijuana. Suddenly concerns about his character were being asked. Bill Polian (then with Carolina) said that when rating players he didn't see any difference between marijuana use and cocaine use and that either of those problems could cause a player to slip an entire round on his draft board or possibly not get drafted at all. 

Sapp would end up going 12th overall to the Bucs, but the difference in money between the 12th pick and top 5 pick is enormous. 

Flash forward 15 years. It's 2009 and teams are looking at players to draft when word comes that WR Percy Harvin and DeSean Jackson have both tested positive for marijuana at the combine. Harvins' status wasn't affect at all, and the big concern about Jackson wasn't any marijuana use, but his size and whether or not he could handle playing in the NFL. 

Times haven't changed any. One NFL coach interviewed by Sports Illustrated says that a full third of his draft board had either admitted to marijuana use, or tested guilty. What does this mean for players and teams, and what can be done about this (and should anything be done about it?). Join me after the jump. 

There have been many high profile athletes (and a couple of US presidents) who have admitted to smoking marijuana. The most well-known NFL player is Ricky Williams who was caught by the league multiple times and in 2004 retired early, in part because he didn't want the hassle of dealing with the league while smoking marijuana and either using masking agents or facing fines and suspensions. He's now being tested three times a week by the league. His kids are on a first name basis with the league officials who administer the thrice weekly tests.

He's not the only high profile athlete to admit to marijuana use. Michael Phelps was caught at a party in November of 2008 smoking a bong and a huge uproar was created--but in a rather remarkable turn of events he received no sanctions from the governing body of swimming and his sponsors have stuck with him, one calling it a "non-issue" and a "personal matter", and another referring to him as a valuable member of the team.

Randy Moss has admitted to using marijuana. Lomas Brown (18 season vet, 7 time Pro Bowler) says that at least 50% of the players in the NFL use marijuana. Some studies suggest that the figure is much lower at 20%, but that's still a sizeable chunk of players who are using. 

Back to the draft.

Sports Illustrated recently did a story where they interviewed several NFL executives, ranging from general managers to head coaches.SI.com interviewed four NFL head coaches, four general managers and two other high-level club personnel executives for this story. Due to the sensitivity of the topic, all requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the issue.

 

All of them describe marijuana use as much more prevalent than ever before with athletes being much more open about it. Out of possible first round picks in this year's draft as many as 11 have tested positive to marijuana during college (and there may be some that have tested positive at the combine that we haven't heard about). 

"Marijuana use is almost epidemic, with more guys having tested positive for marijuana at some point in their college background than I can ever remember,'' said a longtime team personnel man. "It's almost as if we are having to figure out a new way to evaluate it as part of the character and background report, because it's so prevalent. There're enough instances of it that it's hard to know how to set your board. You can't throw out that many guys. You have to go case-by-case and do your homework on them.''

 

In this era of decriminalization and legalization it's no surprise that marijuana use among athletes has risen. There are currently 14 states that allow marijuana for medicinal use. (California lead the way in 1996).

1. Alaska
Passed 1998

2. California
Passed 1996

3. Colorado
Passed 2000

4. Hawaii
Passed 2000

5. Maine
Passed 1999

6. Michigan
Passed 2008

7. Montana
Passed 2004

8. Nevada
2000

9 New Jersey
Passed 2010

10. New Mexico
Passed 2007

11. Oregon
Passed 1998

12. Rhode Island
Passed 2006

13. Vermont
Passed 2004

14. Washington
Passed 1998

 

Rhode Island and Hawaii just passed legislation this year that has decriminalized marijuana (essentially reducing it to the status of a traffic fine). There are 12 other states that have also decriminalized marijuana.

California is leading the way again on the marijuana issue with a ballot measure that will appear on the November ballot to completely legalize marijuana. Richard Lee, the campaign's organizer said this about the campaign.

"We're one step closer to ending cannabis prohibition and the unjust laws that lock people up for cannabis while alcohol is not only sold openly but advertised on television to kids every day," 

 

So what does this mean for the NFL? I suspect it's drug policy won't change as it still tests for substances that are legal. As more and more players use marijuana will penalties and fines lessen or go away all together? Who knows? 

Personally I feel that alcohol is much more unsafe than is marijuana use and that marijuana has many medicinal properties, especially for relief of pain. I think that last point is one that bears emphasizing since NFL teams have no problem shoving pain killers down athletes throats to keep them playing on Sundays when a puff from a joint might work just as well and have fewer side effects.

This is an issue that I'm very interested in since my wife has multiple sclerosis and many of her issues could be relieved by smoking marijuana. 

There are several interesting questions that go along with the debate. I can't really put them in a poll, so I'll ask them here and you can answer them in your replies.

 

1.) Should marijuana be legalized across the country? Should it be a federal initiative or state-by-state?

2.) If it shouldn't be legalized should an exception be made for medicinal marijuana?

3.) If it's not legalized completely should it be decriminalized?

4.) Assuming that marijuana is legal or decriminalized in an athlete's state, should he/she be allowed to smoke marijuana for relief of pain symptoms should they choose to do so, instead of taking narcotics?

5.) Should the NFL stop placing heavy fines and punishments on players who test positive?

6.) If you live in California do you plan on voting for or against the proposed ballot measure?

 

Here are some very interesting articles that I suggest everyone read.

From Sports Illustrated--Marijuana use 'epidemic' in draft class.

From SI's Vault--Up in the Air (about Warren Sapp before the 1995 draft)

From the NYTimes--Ricky Williams is Hoping to Heal Others, and His Image

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