Where There’s Smoke . . .

It’s legal to light up in both Denver and Seattle this weekend, and marijuana is approved for medicinal use in some 20 states. Is it time the NFL relaxed its ban on a drug seen by many players as benign and therapeutic?

By
Robert Klemko
· More from Robert·
A sign near Sports Authority Field at Mile High before the season opener implied that marijuana was less problematic than alcohol—an argument echoed by NFL players. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
A sign near the Broncos’ stadium in September implied that marijuana was less of a problem than alcohol—an argument echoed by NFL players. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

DENVER — John Fox had the floor. In a team meeting before a divisional playoff game against the Chargers, there was much to discuss. Fox’s Broncos had been in the same position a year earlier and lost to the Ravens, who went on to win the Super Bowl. No obstacle would be overlooked this time, including one new potential pitfall that came courtesy of the state of Colorado.

“I know it’s legal now,” Fox told the team, according to players in the room, “but you still can’t smoke it.”

It is the issue (other than the Broncos) on everyone’s mind in Denver: marijuana. Thanks to a state ballot initiative, as of Jan. 1 the sale of pot for recreational use is legal in Colorado. Denver is one of two NFL cities in which recreational marijuana use is now legal—Washington state passed a similar initiative, though retail shops in Seattle have yet to open. But cannabis remains on the NFL’s list of banned substances (and is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law), and Fox cautioned his players against getting in any way involved in the city’s burgeoning marijuana market. The team sent out a memo to all employees as well, reminding them of the policy against marijuana use and possession.

It makes sense that Fox and the Broncos would try to get out in front of any potential screw-ups in the middle of a playoff run, given the general consensus in league circles regarding how many players use pot. Our unscientific survey of 48 current and former players, front office execs, head and assistant coaches, agents, medical professionals and marketing professionals—all of whom either played in the NFL or work closely with NFL players—suggests that more than half of all players smoke marijuana regularly.

One agent put the number at 80%. A coach surmised 60%. A front office decision-maker said 30%. One player who retired after the 2012 season put the number of users at 70%, with 35% of players smoking every day. And one current player who doesn’t smoke guessed an even 50%. If so, that would make about 1,000 members of the league’s fluctuating player population of roughly 2,000.

Most respondents agreed that attitudes among the NFL’s youngest players towards marijuana have shifted just in the last five years. “I can’t really speak to why guys smoke, but I’m from Southern California, so it’s all around where we grew up,” says Broncos safety Omar Bolden, 25, of Ontario, Calif. “You walk outside and it smells like weed. I don’t see it as a big deal because that’s how I grew up. I’m a product of my environment.”

iStock Vendors/Getty Images
iStock Vendors/Getty Images

It’s not difficult to understand why players use marijuana. Despite some of the harshest penalties in American sports for a positive test (a potential four-game ban for a first offense), the NFL doesn’t conduct year-round testing for street drugs including pot. And if you’re not in its program for offenders—which does involve year-round testing—you can expect not to be tested in-season. Agents and marketing firms set their watches to that schedule. Said one agent, “I know when not to bother some of my guys because they’re on edge. It’s the time of year when they can’t smoke.”

Former safety Hamza Abdullah, who last played for the Cardinals in 2011 and spent the bulk of his career in Denver from 2005 to ’08, can recall several teammates who would regularly rush home from the facility to smoke. “There were guys who as soon as they left would say, ‘I’ve got to go smoke this or else I’m gonna go crazy,’” says Abdullah, who says he tried pot in the NFL but avoided it for the stigma. “The things you go through in the NFL are not just physical. The mental aspect is number one. A lot of guys are fighting for their job, and every week they can be cut. They take the strain of that, and about 20 to 25 guys on my teams self-medicated with marijuana.”

Research aligns with this rationale. In 2010, the University of California’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, established by the California state legislature to study the efficacy and safety of medicinal marijuana, reported that there was “reasonable evidence that cannabis is a promising treatment in selected pain syndromes caused by injury or diseases of the nervous system.”

If today’s players wanted to self-medicate it would be easy enough. Denver’s dozen or so retail shops (there are medicinal dispensaries as well—prescription marijuana has been legal since 2000) inhabit basements underneath bagel stores, suburban office parks and storefronts in run-down neighborhoods in the shadow of downtown Denver. At the Denver Kush Club on Welton Street in Five Points, a glass door covered in metal bars opens up to a small waiting room where ID’s are checked (the new law strictly limits sales to those 21 and over), and the flow of customers into the store is regulated to prevent would-be thieves from rushing the counter. There are red, green and yellow “DKC” hats and shirts for sale; among the weed offerings are Island Sweet Skunk, Golden Goat, Amnesia and OG4, a DKC original. A pierced, tattooed blonde offers explanations for each of the marijuana strains behind a glass counter. A jar full of dollar bills stands next to a sign reading TIP YOUR BUDTENDERS.

“If you’re 50 and have some ailments, doctors will give you marijuana,” says Abdullah. “If your 26, 27, and play in the NFL, you can’t have marijuana but they’ll give you Vicodin or Percocet.”

Certain types of weed, it is explained, bring about a “body high,” providing relief for users suffering from arthritis and the like, and other strains offer a “head high,” for those with ailments such as glaucoma or, like one customer at the DKC this week, Retinoblastoma, a cancer that develops in the retina during childhood, causing the eyes to sink into one’s face. While recreational customers seemed to outnumber medical users at DKC, most of the medical users who frequent that or other retail shops, such as Dank Colorado on Elm Street or the Evergreen Apothecary on South Broadway, complain of back pain or knee stiffness or headaches.

“If you were 50 years old and had some of those ailments, if you took them to a doctor he would prescribe marijuana to you,” says Abdullah. “But if you’re 26, 27, and have the same ailments and you play in the NFL, you can’t have marijuana, but they’ll give you Percocet or Vicodin.”

Several retired players suggested that marijuana is more prevalent now than when they entered the league because teams have cracked down on painkiller abuse, in response to the experiences of players who have battled addictions and spoken publicly about it, such as former Dolphins quarterback Ray Lucas. The retired players see the shift to marijuana as a positive development.

“I’ve got friends who were on the painkillers, and they ran out and their pharmaceutical hookup ran out and now they’re struggling,” says one former lineman who last played in 2007. “But the guys who were just smoking, they’re fine now.”

Coloradans check out the product at the Denver Kush Club. (Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Coloradans check out the product at the Denver Kush Club. (Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Current players see marijuana as preferable to another alternative: alcohol. Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher was drunk last year when he killed his girlfriend then drove to the Chiefs facility and killed himself in front of his head coach and general manager. In the seven months between last February’s Super Bowl and the season opener, 10 players were arrested for drunk driving. Bolden says if a teammate were looking for advice on whether to drink or smoke to unwind, he would choose the latter.

“If anything, I think people need to be more concerned with drinking and driving as opposed to marijuana,” Bolden says. “We’ve got a bigger problem—people are dying from cats being under the influence.

“DUIs, rape charges, fights—that all happens with alcohol. But I rarely hear of anything bad happening when guys smoke.”

There is the risk of a league suspension—though given the schedule it’s so hard to get caught that it’s considered the idiot test. But there are failed tests at the NFL combine seemingly every year, and veterans occasionally test positive or are arrested with pot in their possession. This season 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith was arrested on suspicion of DUI and marijuana possession in September. He entered a rehab facility and missed five games. Other players have been linked to failed tests for marijuana, including Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who served a six-game suspension. And even the suggestion of marijuana use—as with Browns receiver Davone Bess’s tweets this week—can create the kind of “distraction” that team front offices hate.

“If anything, people need to be more concerned with drinking and driving as opposed to marijuana,” says Bolden. “DUIs, rape charges, fights—that all happens with alcohol.”

Still, many players see marijuana use as a matter of self-control—if you can do it responsibly without getting caught, there’s no harm. “Just like with anything else, if you use too much of it, it can be a problem,” says Broncos wide receiver Nathan Palmer, “but I don’t really get why marijuana is outlawed. I’ve never seen anybody die from it. But since those are the rules, we have to abide by them.”

For how long?

Asked earlier this month about the league’s stance on marijuana in light of the growing liberalization of laws around the country, commissioner Roger Goodell said, “I don’t know what’s going to develop as far as the next opportunity for medicine to evolve and to help either deal with pain or help deal with injuries. But we will continue to support the evolution of medicine.”

How long can the NFL tell players to avoid a drug on its way to widespread legalization; a drug being prescribed in some 20 states to treat the type of chronic pain the game engenders? Maybe Goodell and the 32 owners will see this as an opportunity to flex those once-progressive NFL muscles—the ones that transformed the way we look at sports on television and brought us the first black head coach in American pro sports (Fritz Pollard, 1921)— muscles long-since atrophied with the denial of decades of concussion truths. More than likely, though, the league will try to duck the bad PR certain to come from easing its marijuana prohibition the way it brushed under the rug the notion that the game was destroying the brains of its players. In that case, the answer to the question, “How long?” is, “Very long.”

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178 comments
JaydenEden
JaydenEden

In my opinion, I think the football players should still stay away from using marijuana. If they have pain, they can take a different, legal supplement. They could also visit a chiropractor. There are many other medical solutions out there. 
Jayden Eden | http://www.davenportchiropracticpain.com/

dohertyd33
dohertyd33

"people are dying from cats being under the influence"...are you kitten me?

MatthewRoscoe
MatthewRoscoe

I think it would be best if the NFL where to wait until Marijuana is legal nationwide (or at least until it's legal in all the states with NFL teams). It seems to me, that if the NFL where to relax on their ban on drugs, they would essentially be saying "It's okay for Broncos and Seahawks players to partake, but nobody else can because it's still illegal in all the other cities with NFL teams".

ImmortalIllumined
ImmortalIllumined

the greatest plant in the universe is almost free, LET FREEDOM RING!!!13


from 0 states to half the country, from low 20% approval to almost 70%, marijuana revolution


only 20 years behind us NFL, sad and scary...cali runs this planet by 2 decades,  the NFL should have their business licenses suspended in half the country until a policy change is enacted, sue their a$$e#


MARIJUANA SUPER BOWL 2014...free state vs free state, destiny....


AMERICA'S WAR ON DRUGS IS A WAR ON AMERICANS!!!33

Rick in Huahin!
Rick in Huahin!

Should be the same as alcohol, even though alcohol is far worse in all aspects!

MarijuanaWorkshops
MarijuanaWorkshops

Getting licensed to grow, process, or sell marijuana in Washington State is no easy process. Most of those that get through the rigorous application process will have hired attorneys or gone to a professional workshop.


On Feb 1, 2014 in Elma, WA a team of Attorneys and Industry Experts will be hosting a full day workshop to help people with their marijuana licensing applications. Seats are still available at: http://www.marijuanaworkshops.com/

howdythurr
howdythurr

anyone else want to hit this? I'm good...

phayes
phayes

The NFL should not relax its rules regarding MJ or any other drug. Just because our nation is going down the tubes doesn't mean sports has to follow.

wetmouse
wetmouse

‘I’ve got to go smoke this or else I’m gonna go crazy,’

If you have an IQ over 100, this should tell you all you need to know about this dangerous drug that ruins lives. But I know this won't mean a thing to the rest of you.

banghartlaw
banghartlaw

It should be OK for Colorado teams to use it, especially before big games in Denver.  :-)  Colorado could become the beer/weed league for professional sports.  That may create an unfair recruiting advantage for some players. Team sing-along could be...  'Rocky Mountain High, Co-lo-ra-do.'  (Tongue in Cheek)

SteveRingeling
SteveRingeling

How on earth can marijuana enhance your performance? try hitting a 90mhp fastball or curveball being high from joint.. you might end up seeing 100 balls coming at you ;o) Try running the 100m in 10.00 being high on a joint.... Even better trying free throws high on a joint.. not sure you will be able to find the basket.. etc... etc.... 

Boogieman1281
Boogieman1281

As long as it remains illegal in a majority of the teams' locations, it will probably remain banned.  However, with the way things are changing, it appears certain that the ban will be lifted eventually.  When it is, it should be treated like alcohol.  Players can do it on their own time, responsibly.  If someone screws up while under the influence, fines & suspensions will be the result.  Also, no lighting up before practice or games.


I am a proponent of legalization.  That being said, I have no sympathy for any player that gets in trouble for using marijuana.  If someone can't quit for a multi-million dollar/year job, then maybe it's a bigger problem for them than just a habit.

Wisconsin Death Trip
Wisconsin Death Trip

Bret Favre became a drug addict doing it the legal way....via booze and Vicodin. Booze via LEGAL over the counter sales, and "Vic" via the NFL doctors. Go figure.... 

bandit74
bandit74

My problem with the legalization proponents is inconsistent logic.  They say that pot is harmless.  It is not.  Nothing is harmless; anything can be abused.  Is it as bad as tobacco, alcohol or opiates?  Of course not.  But that doesn't make it harmless either.  The are and can be very serious side effects and dangers associated with prolonged marijuana use.


They also say it is natural, born of a plant.  Big deal.  So are morphine, heroin and cocaine.  Just because it is naturally occurring doesn't make it safe.  Though I will concede it is far less dangerous than most options.


Finally they say it is medicinal.  This is true.  But this argument actually runs counter to the logic for legalizing it. Most medicines are controlled or restricted (particularly heavy pain-killing medicines).  If anything, arguing its medicinal properties is a vote for restriction, not widespread legalization. Unless of course you also believe that Morphine, percoset and oxycontin should also be legalized...


Personally, I do think marijuana should be legalized.  But not for the reasons stated above.  I think it's a matter of personal freedom.  I think all drugs should be legalized, much in the model that Portugal has set forth.  Someone else mentioned that this should be treated as a social issue rather than a political or legal one.  I agree whole-heartedly.

pitcher78
pitcher78

Marijuana is following in the same footsteps as alcohol. Remember reading about prohibition, alcohol was illegal. Then it came out for prescription holders only, then it was legalized.

salvaje50
salvaje50

Genesis 1:12


And the earth brought forth vegetation, and plants yielding seed after their kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after its kind: and God saw that it was good.

Fleeb
Fleeb

The truth is that use and possession of all drugs, including meth, heroin and cocaine, should be decriminalized. Anyone who doubts that statement should look at Portugal, which chose to do just that over a decade ago.  The results have been an overwhelming success.


There have been marked statistical improvements in virtually every problem associated with drug use. There have been significant reductions in first time users, casual users and addicts, especially in the 12-14 age bracket. The violent crime and homicide rates are down. So is the HIV infection rate among drug users. There have been reported improvements in the lives of family's and dependents of drug abusers. The number of addicts seeking treatment has doubled, and the number of overdose deaths has been cut in half.


Meanwhile, the draconian US drug laws, and the heavy-handed way in which they are implemented, has led to the Land of the Free incarcerating tens of thousands of its citizens every year for simple possession. Due to mandatory sentencing laws, there are people guilty of minor trafficking offenses along the lines of "I was grabbing a lid of pot and I picked one up for my buddy too," who are being locked up for decades.


The problems extend beyond the US borders. The collapse of the rule of law in Northern Mexico is a direct result of the Cartel's desire to feed the US drug market. Even peaceful Vancouver Canada has suffered a 10-year drug war leading to dozens of deaths as the gangs fight it out over the right to sell Billion$$$ worth of BC bud to the US market. 


It is time to stop treating drug abuse as a legal or political issue. Lets treat it as a social problem instead. 

ianlinross
ianlinross

Legal in Colorado but a banned NFL substance. Which is more powerful: the state legislature or Roger Goodell?

BobbyBeast
BobbyBeast

@ImmortalIllumined marijuana messes with your thought patterns. case closed.  Do you like how america is turning out with so many people using pot?  Does it seem like a happier healthier place then say the Andy Griffith  of Mayberry days?      Just watch TV now, look at the average American.       You are not illumined, you're tragically and probably irreconcilably misled  :((

roadrunners
roadrunners

@wetmouseSure, It ruins lives of stupid people like guns that kill people. I've know too many people that both do and do not partake to know that this is NOT a dangerous drug. Have a drink. Have a smoke, line, snort, whack, or whatever else you are so proud of. Did Cheech and Chong loose their teeth ? What's your excuse for not being perfect ?

HeyJoe
HeyJoe

"I've got to stop for a coffee on the way in to work so I can get my day started."

"Whew...what a long meeting, I really need a cig break."

"Today was just hell at work, I could really use a beer right now."

It doesn't mean a thing to the rest of us, your stupid 100 IQ straw man notwithstanding, because it's completely meaningless.

look@thebrightside
look@thebrightside

@wetmouse Hey pal, if my IQ was only 100, I would have problems. I smoke weed once in a while, I've also completed university, hold down an extremely lucrative job and provide for my family as both a loving husband and a father. Perhaps the difference for myself personally is that I'm Canadian and we don't necessarily view marijuana in the same light. Maybe you shouldn't read as much into the words out of the athletes mouths. After all, the control most of the NFL has over the English language is laughable, at best. 

mystafugee
mystafugee

@wetmouse No it doesn't mean anything because the logic is faulty.  Marijuana does not ruin lives, at least compared to other legal vices that are harmful to your health (alcohol, tobacco).  

roadrunners
roadrunners

@Boogieman1281Most people do quit the MJ for jobs but you will hear about the very few that get busted as if it is a BIG problem. It's politics, war, and you know where the truth is in this case don't you ?

mystafugee
mystafugee

@bandit74 They're saying it's harmless in the sense alcohol can cause deaths of innocent people due to driving while impaired.  I don't think anyone's saying it's a healthy habit.  

mystafugee
mystafugee

@Fleeb You might be confusing Portugal with Holland.  They decriminalized most drugs a decade ago.  

crashtx1
crashtx1

@Fleeb Yes, because Portugal is what we want to model? I don't think so.

PhillyPenn
PhillyPenn

@Fleeb please provide a link so we may examine your claims about Portugal

BidumBidum
BidumBidum

@BobbyBeast @ImmortalIllumined  A whole lot of compounds you ingest every day have an effect on your thought patterns. In mild dosages however those compounds don't do any damage. 


Having an effect is not equal to doing damage.


In the right circumstances , giving someone the ability to see something in a different light instead of thoughts going round the same self enforced loops over and over again ca be a very positive thing. Controlled is the key word here. See mdma ptsd trials. 


I do agree that employers should have the absolute right to ask their employees to be sober at work. On the flipside employers should not be able to ask their workers to work under the influence of drugs that for example take away fatigue (caffeine amphetamines etc)


An educated policy made up by someone who knows in detail how these substances work would be a good start.

bandit74
bandit74

@HeyJoe All of those are considered to be addictions and detrimental.  Why would MJ use not fall under that same umbrella?

bandit74
bandit74

@mystafugee @bandit74 Marijuana can also cause impaired driving deaths.  Where does this idea that MJ use doesn't impair driving come from?

mystafugee
mystafugee

@crashtx1 @Fleeb Great logic, because it's Portugal it can't possibly be good.  I don't recall him saying everything about Portugal should be mimicked.  

HeyJoe
HeyJoe

I think you're being a little overzealous with the term addiction, particularly as it relates to alcohol. Joe six pack who comes home from work and cracks a beer after a long day isn't necessarily any more addicted to alcohol than the IT guy (or in this case, football player) who comes home and lights up a joint.

A lot of things can be considered detrimental, pretty slippery slope there.

roadrunners
roadrunners

@mystafugee@bandit74I've seen people driving drunk and people driving stoned. The stoned drivers are much more catious and alert in general unless it's just a plain stupid person.

roadrunners
roadrunners

@Tom52@PhillyPenn@Boogieman1281Think about it now. Herbal medicines have natural buffers that the processed meds do not. In The old jew bible Satan was nothing more than the concept of evil in our heads, spirit and here we are again.

morejunk
morejunk

@Boogieman1281@morejunk@ianlinross 

And as I said, can be CHANGED if both parties agree to the change.  They wouldn't even have to wait until 2016 (when the current CBA expires).

Also the players are technically independent contractors not employees, so the "as an employer" part is wrong as well.

In conclusion, the NFL only has the "right" (not actually a legal right) to ban whatever they and their contractors agree to.  Such as NOT testing for HGH use in players.

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