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NFL's marijuana policy due for a change

by Larry Stone The Seattle Times | December 20, 2019 at 2:26 a.m.

SEATTLE -- This column is not exactly directed at Josh Gordon and his heartbreaking situation.

There are some extenuating circumstances that make Gordon an entity unto himself -- the repeated violations of the NFL's substance-abuse policy (eight suspensions in addition to an arrest for driving while impaired) and the fact that his latest suspension, the one that bounced him off the Seahawks on Monday, also nailed him for using a performance-enhancing substance.

But Gordon's saga does, in an indirect way, shine the spotlight on the NFL's marijuana policy, one that is overdue for a change that aligns it with modern sensibilities.

It's important to note we don't know which substance of abuse Gordon was punished for this time, though he certainly has a widely chronicled association with weed. But coupled with another recent event, it provokes a timely discussion on where the NFL needs to go in legislating marijuana use.

The recent event to which I alluded was MLB's announcement last week that it was altering its drug policy, in a negotiated agreement with the players' union. Namely, the league is going to drop punishment for marijuana and start testing for opioids and cocaine.

The latter was spurred by the last season's death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, who had a mix of alcohol, fentanyl and oxycodone in his system when he died in his hotel room July 1. The former is, in the words of union chief Tony Clark, "part of a larger conversation that was reflective of the attitudes changing in many parts of the country."

That's a conversation that has already begun in the NFL as well. But let's hope it accelerates. No sport puts its players through more abuse than does football, which at the professional level has been likened in one study to 62 car crashes each week for players.

The recuperative benefits of marijuana aren't definitive, but there are certainly strong indications that it helps the body deal with pain -- and pro football players are in constant pain. It's certainly a much better route to go than opioids, the prevalent means of pain management in the NFL. One need look no longer than the national opioid epidemic to see the dangers therein.

Couple that with the national trend toward de-stigmatizing marijuana -- 11 U.S. states have legalized recreational use, as did Canada in 2018, and 33 U.S. states (plus the District of Columbia) allow marijuana use in some form, mostly medicinal -- and it's time for the NFL to update its policy.

An ESPN poll in 2016 revealed that nearly 60% of players worried about the long-term effects of painkillers, and 61% said fewer players would take such drugs if marijuana were an allowed substance. Numerous ex-players have extolled the virtues of marijuana and CBD (a compound that is said to provide pain relief without the psychoactive properties of THC in cannabis).

"Everyone knows this game is brutal," former Chargers offensive lineman Kyle Turley told the Los Angeles Times. "Cannabis saved my life, period, and it could help a lot of other players."

Players might actually be opposed to negotiating a change in the CBA. That's because passing the NFL's drug test for weed is something that 95% of players know how to do. It has been described more as an intelligence test than anything else as long as they have not tested positive before, players are tested only once a year, during a four-month window between April 20 (commence with 4/20 jokes) and Aug. 9. In other words, if you can abstain during the offseason (until your test), you essentially have free reign to imbibe during the season.

In baseball, major-leaguers were never tested for weed. But minor-leaguers, who are not protected by the union, had been suspended for their second and subsequent positive marijuana tests. In making its announcement last week, MLB said marijuana-related conduct would now be treated the same as alcohol-related conduct. That means players (in both the majors and minors) would face discipline only related to "unsanctioned conduct while under the influence." Those who test positive would be subject to mandatory evaluation and voluntary treatment.

It seems the proper way to go in 2019 and moving forward. It's too late to affect Gordon, who knew what the rules were and couldn't abide by them. But why shouldn't football players be allowed to indulge -- safely and sanely and above board -- in the same behavior available to most American adults?

Even the ones who don't endure 62 car crashes a week.

Sports on 12/20/2019

Print Headline: NFL's marijuana policy due for a change


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