NFL players suffer the strictest and most arbitrary restrictions on marijuana use seen in pro sports. In a league wracked and roiled by long-term health impacts like chronic pain and concussion-related dementia and other mental health issues—some of the very conditions for which cannabis is effective—the NFL’s drug policy continues to ruin players’ careers. Meanwhile, cannabis use is rampant throughout the league, and is being touted by more and more current and ex-players as the best tool to manage pro football’s significant health risks.
Just when all signs point towards an end to this bizarre and pointless exercise, here comes the federal government.
Instead of the league, NFL players are now afraid of the federal Justice Department, and the bellicose Trump administration throwing a few superstar athletes in prison—for pot—all to make a point.
Various NFL players have quit weed and other player agents are furiously phoning their clients in an effort to keep them away from cannabis and any subsequent punishments cooked up by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department, according to a recent report published on Bleacher Report.
The website talked to a bevy of players and agents ahead of the league’s amateur scouting combine. And “[t]hose interviewed fear more than failed drug tests,” Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman wrote. “They’re worried marijuana use will lead to imprisonment.”
As of now, NFL players are subject to annual drug testing at some point in the spring or late summer, prior to training camp. (Other pro sports leagues don’t test at all.) If they pee clear, they can use cannabis freely for the rest of the year without risk of detection. If there’s THC metabolites in their urine, they enter the NFL’s drug-testing program and can have their precious bodily fluids monitored by the league at virtually any time.
But as of Election Day, almost one-third of the league’s teams play in states where cannabis is legal for adults 21 and over. A cannabis ban is untenable, and everybody seems at last ready to admit it. The league’s union, the NFL Players’ Association, put together a group of current and former players and health experts to recommend pain management strategies—which could include cannabis. And prior to the Super Bowl, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell indicated that the league’s drug policy could be renegotiated sooner rather than later.
All this is happening at a time when the NFL is in serious trouble.
Television ratings are dropping, and with NFL veterans suffering a slew of serious health issues including chronic pain and mental health issues, much of it stemming from repeated concussions, more young NFL players are retiring “early” rather than risk irreversible brain injury.
Revisiting the drug policy is only reasonable—but now, here comes Trump and Co.
Though everyone appears to have given up trying to squelch medical marijuana, anxiety over the federal government’s plan for recreational cannabis has hit a peak. Last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested recreational cannabis could be subject to “greater enforcement.” (He also suggested there’s a link between recreational cannabis and the opiate crisis.) Earlier in the week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made baseless statements about recreational cannabis causing crime.
Shutting down the entire recreational cannabis industry is a gargantuan task that’s beyond the scope of the DEA, which has but 4,000 agents nationwide. But it would be much easier and cheaper to send a chill through the country with a few high-profile busts.
“I don’t think it’s crazy to think that the government would use high-profile athletes to make a statement,” said one unnamed player, described only as a “veteran” who plays for an AFC team, in comments to Bleacher Report.
Of course, nothing’s happened yet.
Trump himself has yet to say anything definitive about cannabis—and Sessions now has a scandal to weather. And ex-players in other leagues, including the NBA, also cop to using cannabis. Steve Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors, told reporters in December that he’d used weed for back pain. So it seems we’re at a tipping point—which is exactly when desperate drug warriors might be most inclined to stick a thumb on the scale to tip things back.