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The problem with the NFL's new marijuana policy

(David McNew / Getty Images News)

Over the past week, the NFL has faced public outrage over the Ray Rice case and Adrian Peterson's indictment for child abuse.

Given all this attention, a major policy change has largely slipped under the radar: after years of negotiations, the NFL has made an agreement with the player's union to raise the threshold of marijuana needed in a player's urine to constitute a positive test. As part of the deal, the players agreed to new testing for human growth hormone, a performance enhancing drug.

But here's the thing: even that new marijuana threshold is still much lower than those used in other sports. And more importantly, the whole policy is positively draconian given the chronic pain endured by most players and the fact that, by most measures, medicinal use of marijuana to relieve pain is far less harmful than the prescription painkillers they currently depend on.

As former player Nate Jackson recently put it in a New York Times op-ed, "Virtually every single player in the NFL has a certifiable need for medical marijuana." The fact that none of them are permitted to use it is inexplicable.

How the NFL treats marijuana

urine tests

Urine tests. (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)

Under the league's new substance-abuse policy, players are tested once per year for marijuana, opiates, amphetamines, and many other illegal drugs. If a player tests positive for any drug for which he does not have a prescription, he is placed into stage 1 of the substance abuse program for 90 days. If he tests positive again during this time, he's placed into stage 2, which means much more frequent testing — up to ten tests per month.

If he fails again, he's subject to an escalating series of suspensions without pay, eventually culminating in a year-long suspension if he reaches stage 3. And crucially, even if he lives in a state where medical marijuana is legal, he isn't permitted to get a prescription and use it.

This is how Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon was recently given a season-long suspension for having trace amounts of marijuana in his system.

Already having failed two tests (one during college), Gordon was placed in stage 3 of the program in 2013 (under the old policy, it took only two failed tests to reach this stage). He reportedly passed roughly 70 tests after that point. Then, sometime this spring, he tested positive for marijuana.

But as it turns out, his case was particularly convoluted. The NFL's old threshold for a positive test was 15 nanograms of THC (marijuana's main active ingredient) per milliliter of urine. For each test, the league splits a player's urine into two samples, one which is used for the actual test (sample A) and one which is simply used to corroborate the presence of the drug at any level, even if it's below the threshold (sample B).

The samples Gordon submitted as part of the latest test reportedly contained 16 and 13.6 nanograms per milliliter, respectively. Neither of these would count as a positive test under, say, US military or Major League Baseball testing (both of which use thresholds of 50) or the World Anti-Doping Agency, which conducts Olympics testing (its threshold is 150). Moreover, only one of Gordon's samples even counted as a positive under the NFL's harsh standard.

But that one was randomly designated sample A, so Gordon was suspended. (As part of the new deal, his suspension was ultimately reduced from 16 to 10 games.)

The real problem with the NFL's new policy

roger goodell 2

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The new NFL policy raises its threshold to 35 nanograms per milliliter — a standard much lower than most other sports'. It also treats marijuana slightly differently than other drugs, essentially requiring one more failed test for the same penalty.

But the real problem is that the league still won't permit any players to use marijuana medicinally — even when 15 teams are based in states where it can be prescribed legally, and most (if not all) players have a legitimate need for it to treat the chronic pain they endure as a result of the brutal game.

marijuana map 2

Currently, these players rely heavily on prescription painkillers, doled out by team doctors. My colleague German Lopez has detailed the many ways these painkillers are more harmful — both for the user and society as a whole — than medicinal marijuana.

Increasing numbers of Americans are becoming addicted to prescription painkillers, and they impair someone's ability to drive more heavily than marijuana. Prescription painkiller overdoses cause more than 15,000 deaths per year in the US, while marijuana causes none, and there's evidence that permitting medical marijuana can reduce painkiller overdoses overall. Meanwhile, a majority of the public — the same public that turns out in droves to watch football every weekend — thinks marijuana should be legal.

But like the federal government, the NFL still classifies marijuana as a drug on par with heroin, meth, cocaine, and other far more dangerous drugs. The harms of this policy aren't abstract: several former players have died of prescription drug overdoses, and many more battle addictions every day.

What makes all this even more galling is comparing it with the league's treatment of another so-called "player conduct" problem: domestic violence.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has shown a consistent lack of interest in dealing with domestic violence committed by players, delaying suspensions for as long as possible and only acting when forced to by video evidence and public outcry.

Drugs — including marijuana — are treated differently. Positive tests automatically trigger immediate suspensions. Players are presumed guilty unless proven innocent in an appeal.

And, despite the slightly higher threshold, five positive tests for marijuana still lead to a penalty that's twice as big as Ray Rice's initial suspension for assaulting his wife. Under the NFL's new, somewhat stricter policy on domestic violence, assaulting a woman means a six-game suspension — and testing positive for marijuana five times means four games suspended.

Sure, that's a lot of failed tests. But players have a very legitimate reason to use marijuana medically. There's something terribly wrong with any policy that puts smoking marijuana on anywhere near the same level as assaulting another person.

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