The NFL's Pot Problem

Credit: Photograph by Travis Rathbone

Last year, as the Seattle Seahawks cruised into the play-offs, they did so without the two key players who'd been suspended for smoking pot. Never mind that it was legal for cornerbacks Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner to smoke it in Washington – the NFL forbids it. Pot is also now legal in Colorado, where the Broncos lost All-Pro Von Miller for six games, for testing positive.

Although pot use in the NFL is hardly rare – current and former players agree that more than half of pro players partake – the league's 27-year-old marijuana policy was strict and, many say, increasingly out of step. The new policy is regarded as largely symbolic and more of the same. As it stands, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and two, Washington and Colorado, have legalized recreational marijuana. Alaska, Oregon, and D.C. are likely to follow. "It's hard to come up with what's fair here," says former Carolina Panthers GM Marty Hurney. "If more and more states legalize marijuana, how long can you hold out?"


Critics of the league's policy contend that the outdated rules aren't just unfairly affecting individuals, but they're also unfairly penalizing teams. So far this season, the Cleveland Browns and the Arizona Cardinals have been seriously impacted by the loss of Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon and linebacker Daryl Washington, each suspended at least a year after testing positive for a third time (Gordon's suspension was reduced to 10 games under the new policy). And until the NFL catches up with state laws, the league will continue losing players for doing something that, depending on what state they do it in, may be completely lawful.

"We have to be mindful that marijuana is [in most places] still illegal," says Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff. "But at some point I think it will become one of those things where the rules are adjusted and the masses look back, thinking, 'Can you imagine we had those rules in place at one time?' "

The wave of legalization has certainly complicated the way teams prepare for road games. Late last season, the Patriots' Bill Belichick found himself addressing his team before a play-off game in the newly weed-friendly Colorado. Former Patriot back LeGarrette Blount recalls Belichick's message: This is a business trip. "Bill basically said, 'Don't bother. It'd be stupid.' It was really good advice." Too bad Blount didn't heed it during the off-season. Now with the Steelers, Blount and fellow running back Le'Veon Bell were arrested in Pennsylvania in August on misdemeanor pot charges and will be among the first to face the rules of the new policy next season.

Smoking or consuming pot edibles even once is enough to run afoul of the league's standards, which treat pot the same as cocaine or heroin. In fact, much of the criticism of the NFL's policy isn't that the league tests for marijuana use; it's that the threshold for what constitutes a positive result is so low. While Major League Baseball, and even the U.S. military, allow a limit of 50 ng/ml (nanogram per milliliter) of THC (marijuana's active ingredient) in urine, the NFL's new policy sets the limit at 35 ng/ml, up from a threshold of just 15 ng/ml during the last three decades. Just how much pot a player has to ingest to meet that threshold varies depending on his weight, body fat, and metabolism, but a general rule of thumb is that if you smoked marijuana only once, detectable levels (50 ng/ml) would remain in your system for five to eight days; a near-daily smoker would show levels of 50 ng/ml or more for 33 to 48 days afterward. There's no equivalent estimate for levels as low as the NFL's old standard, which may help explain why many players who test positive used a secondhand-smoke defense. They claimed that proximity to the stoners in their lives (one player blamed frequent visits to his grandmother) left them with enough THC in their systems for a positive test. Last year, one player's defense relied on the contention that the THC levels detected in his urine were due to being stuck in traffic in California with a passenger who was legally smoking copious amounts of Girl Scout Cookies, a potent strain of medical marijuana with a 23 percent THC level. At the hearing, the player even produced a receipt for the weed his friend bought and a time stamp of the transaction, but the NFL review board was unmoved and the player's suspension was upheld.


For years, the league remained unconcerned that its THC threshhold levels, set during a 1987 collective-bargaining agreement, were unreasonably low. Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior VP of labor policy and government affairs, says: "I would not call it substandard. I would say, do you want to detect it or not? Societal trends on usage may be changing, but we're talking about illegal activity for the most part."

This year's most high-profile suspension is the Cleveland Browns' receiver, Josh Gordon, who led the league with 1,646 receiving yards in only 14 games last season. Gordon has a history of failed drug tests – he was suspended for two games last year after testing positive for codeine – and because he had already tested positive once, the NFL could randomly test him as many as 10 times per month. According to his attorneys, he passed 70 such tests before coming up one ng/ml over the NFL threshold of 15 in one of the two sample tests. According to NFL guidelines, the urine test is separated into A and B samples. If the A sample exceeds the limit, then the B sample is tested. If the B sample shows any corroborating evidence of THC at any level, the overall test is positive. If it doesn't, the test is voided. But if the A sample shows levels under the agreed upon limit, the B sample is not tested and the result is negative.

Gordon's A sample showed 16 ng/ml under the former 15 ng/ml threshold; the B sample was 13.6 ng/ml. Had the labels been put on in reverse, Josh Gordon would be making the lives of Cleveland Browns fans easier, but instead he's suspended 10 games this year. If he'd tested positive for alcohol or Vicodin or any of the other legal pain relievers players have come to rely on, he would be in active rotation. And therein lies one of the policy's most glaring inconsistencies: The NFL is a five-billion-dollar-a-year industry that attracts many millions in revenue from alcohol sponsors.

Critics of the policy point out that for many players, marijuana has become the safest pain-relief option. "I don't think we have a habitual-use issue in the NFL," Dimitroff says, "but after a game people make their choices: 10 beers or smoke a blunt to relax. Which more negatively affects their body? I'm not sure."

Former tight end Jermaine Wiggins played nine years in the NFL for five teams, and he agrees that weed is widely used. "Smoking is certainly not taboo," he says. "I'd guess 50, 60 percent of players I was around smoked weed. Most guys smoked to relax. Would you rather have a guy take a handful of Percs and Vics and a few drinks because his back is killing him, or smoke a blunt? Pretty soon they're Brett Favre eating them pills off the floor."

One seemingly lenient aspect of the NFL's policy is that players know when tests are coming. Players with no prior drug violations can be tested just once between April 20 and August 9, and only during organized team activities. That's why one GM calls it "more of an intelligence test than a drug test." Once a player tests positive, however, he can be randomly tested up to 10 times a month. At that point, the same GM said, "you have no chance."

So when will the league raise levels in a meaningful way and lose fewer players to a tk policy? It looks as if they're hinting at a change from the Federal Government first. "This has been something that has been asked several times," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this year. "I'll try to be as clear as I possibly can: It is still an illegal substance on a national basis." The issue has become a pawn in the continuing power struggle between management and the players union, and the players union knew they were effectively exchanging the league's new pot policy for one including human growth hormone test, another illegal substance that may be as widely used as pot. And so the stalemate persists, while seasons for guys like Josh Gordon and Daryl Washington and their teams go up in smoke.