The National Football League is up on marijuana, or so the most great and powerful professional sports syndicate in America claims.
Though cannabis has proven value for anyone wishing to recover from pain or neurological issues, like the serious long-term health problems that are a near-guarantee for anyone trying to make a career out of playing football, NFL players caught using marijuana risk punishment ranging from fines up to suspension or a ban from the sport entirely—and are subject to one of the lowest thresholds for a “positive test” in all pro sports.
Some leagues don’t test for marijuana at all, and others, like the authorities overseeing mixed martial arts, allow athletes more than four times as much cannabis in their bodies than NFL players (who, until only recently, enjoyed the same testing requirements as inmates in federal prison).
At the same time, league officials say they receive constant updates from medical professionals, who review the latest “research and scientific data” and suggest appropriate updates to league policy. This isn’t quite moving fast enough to benefit players, who risk public outcry and are made to apologize for so much as visiting recreational marijuana dispensaries.
So, the NFL Players Association(NFLPA)—the union representing players in dealings with the all-powerful league—is going to ask the NFL if they could start punishing players caught with weed a little bit less, please.
There are no details yet, but the NFLPA is busy preparing a proposal for the league’s consideration that would suggest a “less-punitive” approach in regard to marijuana, the union’s executive director told the Washington Post. If that sounds like a milquetoast cop-out, like a fully grown adult begging a dictatorial parent for permission to do what the law says they can do anyway, it is—but this is the NFL. Any update to the league’s outdated drug policy would be forward progress, even if measured in inches.
The NFL last updated its drug policy in 2014, raising the threshold for a positive drug test from 15 nanograms of THC metabolite per milliliter of blood (15 ng/mg, the strict level agreed upon during the renegotiation of NFL players’ collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) in 2011) to 35 ng/mg.
The league isn’t scheduled to renegotiate the CBA, or the drug policy, for a few more years, but weed’s formidable showing on Election Day is forcing the issue. Shortly after four more states legalized recreational marijuana—meaning fans at seven NFL stadiums can now enjoy legal weed, a privilege not yet extended to the players on the field—the NFLPA announced it was forming a “pain management” committee to study, among other things, players’ marijuana use.
“I do think that issues of addressing it more in a treatment and less punitive measure is appropriate,” union boss DeMaurice Smith told a group of Washington Post editors and reporters. “I think it’s important to look at whether there are addiction issues. And I think it’s important to not simply assume recreation is the reason it’s being used.”
He added: “[W]hat we try to do is what a union’s supposed to do: improve the health and safety of our players in a business that sometimes can seriously exacerbate existing physical and mental issues.”
The thing about the league’s weed ban is that while it’s strict, it’s also rather silly: Players are generally only drug tested once a year, and know well in advance when it’s coming. Once the test is past, they can smoke all season stress-free. Problems arise when a player has to use cannabis, such as Bills offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson, who uses cannabis to deal with a serious case of Crohn’s disease and received a four-game suspension for his trouble.
So maybe less of that.
How much less, and when, and under what circumstances, the union has yet to decide. And whatever the union decides is then subject to negotiation and ultimate approval by the league. So we’re a long ways off.
Meanwhile, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed on Wednesday that the league has already been in talks with the union about loosening its drug policy—and hey, it’s already “less punitive.” Which is true, if only in the literal sense. On the ground, everything is functionally the same.
How much longer can this go on?
At this rate, it may be a race to see who blinks first: the NFL or the federal government. Meanwhile, everyone else loses.
Read More About Pot and the NFL:
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