Leaders of the NFL Players Association are preparing a proposal that would amend the sport’s drug policies to take a “less punitive” approach to dealing with recreational marijuana use by players, according to the union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith.
The proposal will be presented to union’s board of player representatives, Smith said Tuesday. If it is approved by those players, Smith said, the proposal will be made to the league. The NFL would have to agree to any changes to the drug policy, which is negotiated and jointly administered by the league and players’ union.
The proposal to modify the manner in which the league deals with recreational marijuana use would, if it is delivered, come as the NFLPA’s recently formed pain management committee separately studies the issue of marijuana use by players as a pain management tool and whether that should be permissible under the drug policies.
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“I do think that issues of addressing it more in a treatment and less punitive measure is appropriate,” Smith said in a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors. “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.”
Marijuana use currently is banned by the NFL and positive or missed tests can result in fines and suspensions for players.
Smith said the sport’s leaders must keep in mind that there might be underlying reasons for what is called recreational marijuana use by players.
“We have to do a better job of knowing if our players are suffering from other potentially dangerous psychological issues like depression, right?” Smith said. “So if I look at this myopically as just a recreational use of marijuana and miss the fact that we might have players suffering from depression, what have I fixed? Worse yet, you may have solved an issue that gets the steady drumbeat in a newspaper but miss an issue like chronic depression . . . where a person theoretically might be able to smoke more weed because it makes them feel better but it’s not curing their depression.
“So to me, as we’re looking at that front end — and it’s been a long process — the reason why I think it’s more complicated than just making a quick decision about recreational use is we look at these things as a macro-issue. And what 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 league and union agreed in 2014 to modifications of the drug policy regarding marijuana. The threshold for what constitutes a positive test for marijuana was relaxed. A level of 15 nanograms of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) per milliliter of urine or blood was counted as a positive, the most stringent standard in professional sports, prior to 2014. Under the revision, 35 nanograms per milliliter counts as a positive; a nanogram is one-billionth of a gram.
It takes four missed or positive tests to trigger a four-game suspension without pay. An initial violation results in referral to the substance abuse program. A second violation is a fine equivalent to two game checks for the player and a third violation is a fine equivalent to four game checks.
A fifth violation results in a 10-game suspension and a sixth violation results in a one-year banishment from the sport.
Smith did not provide specifics as to how the union might seek to reduce the penalties for marijuana use and said he did not know if the league would be receptive to such a proposal.
“I don’t spend time thinking about what the league thinks,” Smith said. “I mean, it’s a waste of time. . . . We will sit down and we will present a proposal to our board. . . . If our board approves the proposal, we’ll sit down with the league and we will make the proposal to them. If we think that this is medically, scientifically and therapeutically the right position, then we tell the league, ‘Therapeutically, medically and scientifically, this is the right position.’
The league consistently has said in the past that it would consider revising its stance on marijuana only if advised to do so by medical experts.
“This isn’t just the NFL’s policy,” a league spokesman said in a written statement in November. “This is a collectively bargained policy with the NFL Players Association.
“The program is administered by jointly appointed independent medical advisors to the league and the NFLPA who are constantly reviewing and relying on the most current research and scientific data. We continue to follow the advice of leading experts on treatment, pain management and other symptoms associated with concussions and other injuries. However, medical experts have not recommended making a change or revisiting our collectively-bargained policy and approach related to marijuana, and our position on its use remains consistent with federal law and workplace policies across the country. If these medical experts change their view, then this is an area that we would explore.”
Smith said Tuesday that the issue is complex.
“I think that one of the things that we have looked at over the last 18 months is whether we should be making changes in the way in which marijuana is treated under the current system,” he said. “And I am convinced that we should be looking at it a little bit more of the way that we looked at it in 2014. We tried to move more towards a treatment, addiction-eradication focus rather than punitive. I think that we are gonna take that to another level. . . . But it’s also complicated.
“Obviously [we] understand the changes in legalization all over the country. I don’t know how many people here have kids or grew up the way that you grew up, but people think differently. But I also know one thing: Chemically it is not the same strain or strength of marijuana that people may have experienced a few years ago.”
In November, voters in California, Nevada and Massachusetts approved recreational marijuana use, joining four other states and D.C. that have enacted similar laws. Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota voters approved medical marijuana use in November, bringing the total of states with such measures to more than two dozen.
“How do you make sure that you address any potential addiction issue? Because I’ve read the literature on both sides,” Smith said. “How do you deal with the fact that some people are using it purely recreationally and pivoting it to. . . people who are using it medicinally either as a pain eradicator or a stress-coping mechanism? So what we’ve decided to do is, to the best we can, look at it as related but nonetheless separate issues. Do I expect in the near future we are going to be presenting something to our board on the first issue? Yes.”
The union’s pain management committee actually is a subcommittee of its Mackey-White traumatic brain injury committee. The committee’s study of players’ use of marijuana as a pain management tool is to continue at least through the spring.
“When it comes to the issue of medical marijuana. . . we made the decision a few months ago to form a pain management committee. . . . We’ve now asked that Mackey-White group to create a subcommittee just dealing with the issue of pain and treating pain as its own separate, identifiable ailment, as opposed to it being a consequence of some other injury,” Smith said.
“And we will be looking at the issue of the efficacy of using marijuana, along with looking at opioid use and all of the ways in which our players are treated by physicians and sometimes not treated well by physicians and, being blunt, the ways in which they self-treat. . . . The hope is that pain committee will be making a presentation to the full Mackey-White committee sometime in May.”
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The Washington Post’s Liz Clarke contributed to this report.
Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.Follow him on Twitter @MarkMaske