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The NFL May Be Softening Its Stance on Marijuana Because of Another Kind of Green

As in: a negotiating ploy for more money from the next collective bargaining agreement

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Washington Post reported on Monday that the NFL has offered to study marijuana’s potential for pain management in a partnership with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), the most significant step the league has taken toward allowing players to use the banned substance. The NFLPA has yet to agree to work with the NFL on this issue, and is currently conducting its own study. But former players such as QB Jake Plummer and RB Ricky Williams and current players like Titans starting linebacker Derrick Morgan have said that marijuana could be critical in allowing players to deal with injuries incurred on the field.

“I do think that issues of addressing [marijuana] more in a treatment and less [in a] punitive measure is appropriate,” DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA, said in January. “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.”

Since 2012, the marijuana legalization movement has gained steam in America; eight states have completely legalized recreational use of the drug. But the NFL maintains a hardline marijuana policy. After one positive test, a player is enrolled in a mandatory substance abuse program. After a second positive test, a player is fined two games’ pay, and a third positive test docks another four games’ pay. The fourth and fifth positive tests result in four- and 10-game suspensions, respectively, and a sixth positive test incurs a minimum one-year ban. This latest report could be one of the first signs that the league, like significant swathes of the country, is beginning to rethink its attitude toward marijuana. Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration, alongside heroin and LSD, and embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a noted marijuana critic, has no plans to relax the Department of Justice’s policies on marijuana (though he may not keep his job for long).

The NFL has also taken a harsh stance toward marijuana. In 2014, the league agreed to relax its testing standards, then the strictest in American professional sports at 15 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood or urine. The World Anti-Doping Agency, which tests Olympic athletes, requires 10 times that amount for a positive test. The league’s pre-2014 standards were so rigid that players who inhaled secondhand smoke were potentially at risk of a positive test, which is what Josh Gordon argued led to his positive result in 2014. Now the NFL’s standard is 35 nanograms, which is still a stringent mark.

A chorus of former NFL players, including high-profile advocates like Williams and Eugene Monroe, have sung the praises of marijuana as an aid to recovery from the physical and mental effects of playing football. Some scientific literature backs up those testimonials. In January, the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering assembled a 395-page report culled from over 24,000 academic papers. Its findings included “evidence to support that patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids were more likely to experience a significant reduction in pain symptoms.” Chronic pain is a fact of life in the NFL, and many players experience trouble just getting out of bed in the morning. It’s perhaps the biggest problem in the NFL after long-term brain health, and right now the NFL deals with it through the use of prescription drugs.

Last July, Calvin Johnson discussed his retirement in an interview with E:60 in which he said that team doctors used to give out painkillers “like candy.”

“If you were hurting, then you could get ’em, you know,” Johnson said. “It was nothing. I mean, if you needed Vicodin, call out, ‘My ankle hurt,’ you know. ‘I need, I need it. I can’t, I can’t play without it,’ or something like that. It was simple. That’s how easy it was to get ’em, you know. So if you were dependent on ’em, they were readily available.”

Many reports have corroborated Johnson’s anecdote, and now the NFL’s scary reliance on drugs like Toradol has sparked a lawsuit that, for some, brings to mind the NFL’s roughly $1 billion settlement with thousands of former players who accused the NFL of hiding the long-term dangers of concussions and brain injuries. As the widespread availability of addictive prescription drugs has contributed to the opioid epidemic sweeping across the country, the NFL has made the decision to side with painkillers over marijuana. (Some form of medical cannabis is legal in every state the NFL has a team in.)

One potential reason that the NFL is teasing marijuana reform now could be collective bargaining. With NFL revenues at an all-time high, NFL players are looking at their NBA counterparts, who enjoy fully guaranteed contracts and have seen their payouts balloon under the NBA’s rising salary cap, and sensing that they’re getting a raw deal. Owners may hope to extract more money from the CBA, which will be renegotiated in 2020, in exchange for relaxed marijuana rules.

“Some people feel strongly we should address [the marijuana policy] now,” said Cowboys executive Stephen Jones. “I think some people feel that we’re close enough that you should wait and take care of it in one fell swoop when you sit down and bargain with the union. … It’s a tough one to answer. It’s not just marijuana. The whole [CBA] always has to be looked at.”

In previous years, NFL owners have withheld seemingly agreeable policy changes as a negotiating tactic. Owners waited to concede on changes to offseason practice scheduling — a priority for the players — until the 2011 CBA negotiations, and secured a deal perceived as owner-friendly. With both sides looking to get a bigger piece of the pie in the next CBA, permitting recreational marijuana use may prove a useful bargaining chip for owners during CBA negotiations. The NFL’s offer on Monday to study marijuana with the NFLPA may mean that the owners want to trade green for green.