Where There’s Smoke . . .

January 17, 2014 by Robert Klemko
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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