Why the NFL should follow baseball’s marijuana policy



December 19, 2019 - 9:36 AM

New England Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon before a game against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 29. TIMOTHY T. LUDWIG/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

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.

The NFL took a positive step in that direction in May, when it reached agreement with the NFL Players Association on the formation of a joint committee to study and assess pain-management alternatives to the use of painkillers (in addition to requiring a mental-health practitioner for each team).

Though marijuana wasn’t explicitly mentioned, Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, told the Washington Post, “We’ll look at marijuana.”

Of course, it won’t be as easy as merely adopting a new policy that follows the lead of the NHL, NBA and MLB in being less punitive on marijuana violations. The NFL tends to move in baby steps on these matters.

There’s also the matter of the upcoming negotiations on the collective bargaining agreement. The CBA is set to expire in 2021, and both sides will grab every bit of leverage they can get. Mike Florio of NBC Sports has reported that NFL owners are of a mind to make wholesale changes to its marijuana policy that reduce the penalties — but want to use those concessions as a CBA bargaining chip.

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, Florio said. 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.