Dougherty: Time to ease substance-abuse rules

Pete Dougherty
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Steve Kerr made news a week ago when he spoke publicly about using marijuana last year to try to relieve debilitating back pain.

The Golden State Warriors coach said it didn’t help him, but he advocated allowing NBA players to use marijuana for pain relief. He’s right, and the NFL should do the same for its players.

The fact is, the NFL’s substance-abuse policy is too punitive. It doles out too many suspensions for too long, most especially for marijuana.

Let’s start by making something clear: Using marijuana, generally speaking, isn’t good for you. It will take years for more definitive evidence to come in, but studies so far suggest it’s especially bad for an adolescent’s developing brain, and that persistent use at that time might cost you IQ points permanently.

It can negatively affect your memory and motivation. If you smoke it, it’s terrible for your lungs. And according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, about 9 percent of people who try marijuana become addicted (that number is about 17 percent for alcohol).

I for the life of me don’t know why an athlete would use marijuana unless it really helped relieve pain or some other medical condition, like Buffalo Bills lineman Seantrel Henderson, who says it alleviates his symptoms of Crohn’s disease. The NFL suspended him last week for 10 games, by the way.

Regardless, the NFL’s policy needs to change with the times. More than half the states in this country have legalized marijuana is some form. Eight and Washington, D.C., allow recreational use; another 21 allow for medicinal marijuana use only; and another five that allow neither nevertheless have decriminalized it.

Marijuana’s not good for you overall, but in many ways it’s less harmful than alcohol. And there’s growing anecdotal evidence that it can alleviate pain and might keep some or even many players from using the far more harmful and addictive opioid class of drugs prescribed for pain.

I’m not convinced the league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players union should even allow testing for marijuana. The league wants it for PR reasons, and I spoke with a couple sources who have ties to or work regularly with the NFLPA and say that that organization feels a responsibility to look out for its vulnerable members. NFL players, after all, come into big money at an uncommonly young age, and drug testing is a way to deter drug use among them and flag those with an addiction.

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I also get that the NFL doesn’t want to condone drug use. In the 1970s, a crack cocaine epidemic did enormous damage to the NBA. But that doesn’t mean the NFL’s highly punitive approach to marijuana in particular is the way to go. While the union can be lauded for looking out for its members’ well-being, it needs to place a higher priority on keeping players from being suspended, and on treating addiction problems, not drumming them out of the league.

And that’s without even mentioning the hypocrisy that owners, front-office executives and coaches aren’t tested. They’re only disciplined if they’re caught breaking the law.

Nevertheless, if the NFL and union insist on testing for marijuana, fine. But allow it for medicinal purposes, and reduce or even eliminate the penalties for recreational use. Players shouldn’t have to miss games or even be docked pay for smoking marijuana. Treat them if they have a problem, but don’t take away their livelihood.

Just this week Packers defensive lineman Mike Pennel was suspended without pay for the second time this season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, and if it was for marijuana use, that’s more than a shame. It’s wrong.

Is there much chance the rules will change soon? The NFL’s CBA doesn’t run out until 2021, so probably not. But if the league and union are really looking out for their players, they’d do something about it before then.

The league has adjusted the rules for marijuana already. In recent years it has raised the threshold for a positive test and reduced the penalty for a second positive test to a two-game fine rather than four.

But there’s nothing preventing the league and union from doing more – or less, as the case may be.

The NHL, for instance, doesn’t include marijuana on its list of prohibited substances. It checks urine samples for the drug, but it only reports them anonymously in bulk so the league and union can determine usage trends. It also allows for doctors with access to the tests to contact a player directly if he has a dangerously high level of the drug in his system to see if he needs help.

That’s what the NFL should be going for. Players who test positive for marijuana even multiple times should be enrolled in education and substance-abuse programs but not have their livelihoods confiscated. Many are regular users anyway. I’ve asked several sources over the past few months, and the estimate invariably was around 50 percent of current players smoke marijuana. If they’re not in the drug program, they’re tested only once a year, so they know how to avoid getting caught.

When I first started researching this topic a couple months ago, I was skeptical that marijuana could do much to alleviate the pain from playing in the NFL. But the more you look into it, the more you find bountiful anecdotal evidence from current and former pro athletes that say it helps, a lot.

There also are some more rigorous scientific studies that suggest as much as well, and current studies also are looking into marijuana’s possible neuroprotective properties for treatment of concussions along with its possible anti-inflammatory properties.

Of course, allowing medicinal but not recreational use creates its own problems. Will any player with an ache or pain be allowed to use it? If so, that means essentially everyone can.

That’s why the league and union shouldn’t penalize any of its players for using marijuana. They can educate and try to dissuade, but they shouldn’t mandate. If it seems to help with pain, and keeps some players off opioids, that’s reason enough.

But this also is the 21st Century. The war on drugs was a bust, and marijuana is on a fast track to become legal in every state. The NFL and its players union need to change with the times.

/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Packers defensive end Mike Pennel (64) stuffs Texans running back Lamar Miller.
Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Pennel (64) stuffs Houston Texans running back Lamar Miller (26) for a four-yard loss during the third quarter at Lambeau Field.
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