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NFL Players Union to Propose Easing Penalties for Cannabis

January 25, 2017

Leaders from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) are putting together a proposal to amend the league’s drug policies and adopt a “less punitive” approach to dealing with cannabis consumption by players, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the players union, said the proposal will be presented to the union’s board of player representatives for approval. If those player representatives sign off, he said, the proposal go forward to the league itself.

Any changes to the policy would require the NFL’s agreement, as the substance policy is negotiated and administered by both the league and the players union.

Smith so far has not provided specifics regarding the proposal, and he acknowledged he didn’t know whether the league would be receptive to proposed changes.

Under current NFL rules, a player’s blood cannot contain more than 35 nanograms per milliliter of THC. That’s a higher threshold than the league’s 15 ng/mL limit which existed prior to the 2014—a sign the league has loosened its stance on cannabis in recent years, if only slightly.

It also takes more than a single failed test to trigger a suspension. As former players such as Chris Kluwe and Jake Plummer have said, a fourth missed or positive test triggers a four-game suspension without pay. The first three violations carry financial penalties, however, and players may be referred to the league’s substance abuse program.

Penalties after a fourth failed test are much more severe. A fifth failed test results in a 10-game suspension, and a sixth violation means a yearlong banishment from the league.

Smith, in his interview with the Post, said he feels it’s warranted to take a “less punitive” approach to cannabis.

“I do think that issues of addressing it more in a treatment and less punitive measure is appropriate,” Smith said. “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.”

As the scientific community is learning, cannabis can also be an effective treatment for chronic pain and has the potential to ease depression and anxiety. Legislating cannabis consumption without acknowledging those uses of the plant, he said, misses important points:

We have to do a better job of knowing if our players are suffering from other potentially dangerous psychological issues like depression, right? So if I look at this myopically as just a recreational use of marijuana and miss the fact that we might have players suffering from depression, what have I fixed? Worse yet, you may have solved an issue that gets the steady drumbeat in a newspaper but miss an issue like chronic depression … where a person theoretically might be able to smoke more weed because it makes them feel better but it’s not curing their depression.

So to me, as we’re looking at that front end—and it’s been a long process—the reason why I think it’s more complicated than just making a quick decision about recreational use is we look at these things as a macro-issue. And what we try to do is what a union’s supposed to do: improve the health and safety of our players in a business that sometimes can seriously exacerbate existing physical and mental issues.

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Gage Peake

Gage Peake is a former staff writer for Leafly, where he specialized in data journalism, sports, and breaking news coverage. He's a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

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