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Smoke Signals: As legalization of pot spreads, should NFL lift its ban?

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Though many players use marijuana, commissioner Roger Goodell isn't ready to lift the NFL's ban.

This story appears in the February 10 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Players call it dabbing. The device looks like a mini bong, but there is a tiny metal ring instead of a small bowl. Justin Hartfield, the founder of WeedMaps.com, the site known as "the Yelp of cannabis dispensaries," aims a butane torch at the ring, which is the size of a pencil eraser. Within seconds it glows like an orange doughnut. With a steel dental instrument Hartfield scoops a dab of amber paste from what looks like a tiny jar of lip balm and touches it to the heated ring. A wispy white feather rises from their union, filling the device with smoke. The cloud disappears into Hartfield's lungs, but when he exhales, there is almost no smell despite the potency of the burned cannabis resin. "It's a lot more pure this way," he says, "and you can travel with it because" -- grinning, raising the bottlecap-sized ceramic container -- "it's skin lotion." He extends his arm in offering. The goop inside the jar smells of cinnamon and mint.

Hartfield, 30, says he earned a 4.6 GPA in high school and a degree in information and computer science from UC Irvine in 2 1⁄2 years. He says he has smoked weed practically every day since he was 13. As the effects of the resin -- from a strain called Firefly -- settle in, he tells the story of the former Laker or Clipper (not named here because he's still active) who dabs regularly. Just so there's no confusion, such players like dabs because they offer a great high. But they also appreciate dabbing's portability, Hartfield says, and they appreciate the calm they feel at the TSA screening stations that mark their lives. Carrying innocuous looking dabs -- it's also called wax or, if it's hard and crystalline, shatter -- beats the heck out of eating a handful of ganja, as Lions running back Mikel Leshoure tried to do when he was pulled over by police in 2012. And it's undeniably better than the lengths to which former Jazz center Robert Whaley went in 2010, when Salt Lake City police approached his car and found him, according to the report, "to be in possession of several baggies of marijuana that he was holding between his buttocks." The moral of these stories -- aside from, Don't ever accept weed from Robert Whaley -- is that when trying to steer clear of trouble, a little dab does better than a skunky baggie.

Why carry at all, though? Why use? Why do athletes risk it?

*****

A lot of people had fun calling the Super Bowl the Stoner Bowl, since the home states of the two teams playing in the game, Colorado and Washington, have legalized cannabis for recreational use. And yet cannabis remains on the banned-substance lists of the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL. Should it be?

"It is still an illegal substance on a national basis," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said during Super Bowl week, and later added, "We will follow medicine, and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that." It was a stutter-step in the direction of acceptance, but as powerful as sports commissioners are, Washington, D.C., will call the shots in this battle. Removal from those banned lists would first require sweeping changes in federal law. And despite some recent statements by President Obama that could be read as pro-cannabis (followed by some cornerbacklike backpedaling), no one of any influence in our capital appears to be in a hurry to remove cannabis from the list of Schedule I controlled substances, where it sits with cocaine, meth, heroin and all the rest.

"We will follow medicine, and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that." --Roger Goodell on removing marijuana from the banned substance list
 

None of this changes the fact that athletes use cannabis. They use it recreationally, they use it to deal with the aches and pains and stress inherent in their occupations, and they use it for medicinal purposes. The various rules and laws against it ignore a growing body of scientific evidence, make a mockery of the country's approach to other controlled substances and go against a rising tide of social change to create a game of cat and mouse between athletes and law enforcement, employers, family, friends and teammates to no one's verifiable benefit.

*****

Ryan, a 25-year-old actor who grew up playing baseball and football in SoCal, works for LASpeedWeed, a rapidly growing enterprise that delivers cannabis to doctor-approved recipients -- including, as it turns out, quite a few UFC fighters. This is how he pays for rent and acting classes. As Ryan double parks outside a tony apartment building at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, he clicks on his hazard lights and calls a young lady who may or may not be an aspirant to Ronda Rousey's throne. She tells him to come up. He pulls a backpack from the trunk. It contains her order, exactingly measured, sealed in odor-proof plastic and placed in a crisp white paper bag.

On the way here Ryan talked about the numerous deliveries he's made to the home of a famous MMA competitor, and how increasingly routine and sad those meetings have begun to feel. The client's face had struck him as morose and bored the last time he answered the door. This wasn't a college kid out to get legally blazed. "He was hurting, on some level," Ryan says.

"The vast majority of people I deliver to just want to get high," Ryan says. (He withholds his last name because his mom thinks he delivers film for a production company.) "Almost all of them, actually. But when the person who opens the door is bald from chemotherapy or they're using a walker or whatever, it makes you feel good about doing this for a living."

Bonni Goldstein, an M.D. and director of Canna-Centers Medical Evaluations in California (she approves patients for state-sanctioned medical cannabis use), explains that "cannabinoids are chemicals that trigger the cannabinoid receptor system that already exists in our bodies." She stresses the last words to drive home the point that humans are hard-wired to receive the flowers of the cannabis plant as medicine. "Everyone knows about THC, which is the cannabinoid that makes you feel high or stoned," she says. "But they don't know about cannabidiol, or CBD, a cannabinoid that has no psychoactive properties but does help manage pain. CBD has also helped my pediatric patients who have autism and seizure disorders. I've seen nonverbal autistic kids become chatterboxes. I've seen seizures vanish."

She opens a window on her laptop that displays multiple studies that have shown a "reduction of cell damage and cell death" in patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and head trauma.

*****

The world's oldest pharmacopoeia, the Chinese pen-ts'ao ching, compiled in the first century A.D., tells us that ma-fen (the fruit of cannabis) "makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one's body." Like most people who smoke cannabis, pro athletes who imbibe often do so for the communicating with spirits and lightening one's body thing. In Colorado and Washington, at least, that's entirely within the law, though still not within the rules of any of the pro leagues.

The plant can be abused. But players argue that the locker room can police itself. In the NFL, if a player's performance is perceived to be waning for an unacceptable reason -- marriage problems, a contract beef, being high all the time -- there comes a point when that player hears about it from his peers. And if an NFL player abuses weed to the obvious detriment of the team, if he walks into a meeting faded and nonfunctional, he will be risking an intervention from his employer (rehab or counseling, perhaps) or his outright release (unless he's an All-Pro, which can complicate things). Same as if he had come to work drunk.

Guilt is a warning sign that you're doing something bad," former Cowboys and Bears receiver Sam Hurd told SI before he was sentenced to prison for drug trafficking last fall. "I've never felt guilty smoking weed." Hurd was sentenced to 15 years by a federal judge who has since ruled that "no evidence was presented that Hurd derived any money from the sale of narcotics," including cocaine, which was the basis of the case against him. It makes one wonder what the 15 years were for. And why did Hurd's former Dallas teammate Josh Brent get just six months for a drunk driving accident that killed fellow Cowboys lineman Jerry Brown? Why did Brent get nine months fewer than the 15 months served by Kurt Vollers, the former Dallas offensive lineman who was released from Leavenworth in May 2013 after pleading guilty in 2010 to a marijuana conspiracy charge? Like scores of other NFL players, Vollers says he used cannabis as a means to wean himself off opiate painkillers such as Vicodin and Percocet that were provided to him by his employer.

"Guilt is a warning sign that you're doing something bad. I've never felt guilty smoking weed." --Sam Hurd, former Bears and Cowboys receiver currently serving 15 years for drug trafficking
 

Interviews with Vollers and other NFL players have revealed that when teams don't provide enough pain pills to do the trick, players, especially interior linemen, resort to the black market for their pills, exchanging cash for who-knows-what substances. Journalist Doug Fine, author of Too High to Fail, the story of his immersion in the cannabis-farming culture, told SI, "The preponderance of research shows that cannabis is in an entirely different category from steroids, dangerous street drugs and prescription opiates. Obtaining cannabis legally allows users to know the source of the plant and how it was cultivated."

Goldstein was asked what it will take to nudge the conversation toward the tipping point she seeks: the acceptance of cannabis for medicinal use within the NFL and other pro leagues. "It will take someone like me literally standing in front of them and showing them the science, walking them through it," she says. "I hope it won't take a player OD'ing on Vicodin." (There were 14,800 deaths from opiate overdoses in 2008, according to the Center for Disease Control, and none from cannabis.) Interested players could help by educating themselves on cannabis's physical and neuropathic benefits instead of just its psychoactive properties. More Bonni G and less Ali G.

Opponents of decriminalization argue that cannabis hasn't been studied thoroughly enough to remove it from the Schedule I list. The decriminalization movement responds to that by shoving a sheaf of university studies across the table, including the eye-opening work of UC San Diego's Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, and noting that most other medicinal research has been stifled because of the Schedule I status. Two Sundays ago, as Goldstein spoke to a roomful of parents whose kids battle autism, seizure disorders or cancer (and the nausea that chemo brings with it), the NFL announced the first grant awards in the league's "Head Health Initiative -- a $60 million partnership aimed at jump-starting new research into the brain." To no one's surprise, medicinal cannabis researchers were not among the recipients.

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