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Patrick Hruby

Up In Smoke

Why the sport world treats marijuana use too harshly

Sports on Earth

I hope there's another reason. One that isn't moronic. Really. I hope that when Florida Atlantic University athletic director Pat Chun says "other violations of university rules," he means that Carl Pelini was actually running a grandma-defunding Ponzi scheme, or cooking up aquamarine supermeth in the New Mexico desert, or offering a bottle of hard lemonade to Chris Hansen. Something else. Anything else. The worse, the better. Because if the reports and rumors are true and Pelini primarily was ousted Wednesday as the school's football coach for "illegal drug use" involving his reported attendance at a "social event where marijuana was used" -- translation: coach smoked pot! -- then this is the single stupidest sports termination since, well, less than two weeks ago, when the Houston Texans reportedly cut three players for sparking up.

Also, did I mention this was dumb?

Look, I understand: Rules are rules. If Pelini used marijuana, he violated the terms of his university contract. He also broke state and federal law. So he pretty much has to go. Or be punished. Or be placed into rehab. Or given a stern lecture. Maybe a time out in the corner. Whatever. Point is, there need to be consequences for his alleged actions -- otherwise, we should all just start fighting for the conch. I get that. But what I don't get are the rules themselves. They're lousy. They accomplish nothing. Protect no one.

Marijuana prohibition has been an abject social and cultural failure -- overloading our judicial system; overcrowding our prisons in a racially disproportionate manner; creating a black market that fuels violent and organized crime; fostering a ongoing moral panic with scant basis in reason or evidence; denying potentially helpful medicine to suffering people in need; failing to reduce usage rates; and generally curtailing the freedom of adult American citizens to partake of a recreational substance that is arguably less hazardous to one's health and well-being than both alcohol and tobacco.

It's one thing for voters and politicians alike to make and cling to bad laws. That's kind of what both groups do. It's another thing entirely for what seems like the whole sports world -- the same oft-progressive place that gave us Jackie Robinson standing up to segregation, Billie Jean King battling sexism and Muhammad Ali just saying no to the Vietnam War -- to blithely and counterproductively follow suit.

Sports leagues and governing bodies ban marijuana use the same way they ban steroids and amphetamines. Professional, college and even high school athletes are tested for the drug. (Never mind that other students and team employees are not.) The sports media still writes hand-wringing marijuana exposes. Violators are suspended from competition, docked pay, temporarily stripped of Olympic gold medals, subject to late night monologue Cheech and Chong jokes and (allegedly) in the cases of Pelini and the Texans' trio, told to clean out their lockers/desks. And for what? Because Nancy Reagan and Mr. T once told America to blindly say no?

The Reefer Madness needs to stop.

Last year, voters in Colorado and Washington chose to legalize recreational marijuana use. The NFL, the NBA, the NCAA and the United States Olympic Committee -- all of which have teams and/or offices in one or both states -- responded by affirming their respective bans on the drug. USA TODAY Sports columnist Christine Brennan supported their stance, writing "there can be no place in athletics for marijuana. It's as simple as that":

… do we want clean sport, or do we not? Is it important for athletes who represent our cities and country and become role models for our kids to compete with integrity and without drugs, or is it not?

Here's the thing: It's not as simple as that. Not even close. Like jaywalking and public intoxication, marijuana use is against the law of the land -- and like those two things, it has absolutely nothing to do with the integrity of athletic competition. Puffing the magic dragon does not make you bigger, faster or stronger. It neither sharpens your vision nor increases your cardiovascular endurance. It is not a performance-enhancing substance by any reasonable definition of the term.

Brennan tries to argue otherwise by quoting doping expert Gary Wadler, who says that "no one is suggesting it's a steroid or a growth hormone, but it can have an effect on performance by decreasing anxiety." Decreasing anxiety? Please. If lowering anxiety counts as unfair performance enhancement, then playing XBox, going fishing, wine with dinner and pre-match coital relations should also be added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list. More likely, marijuana is a potential performance de-hancer -- and even then, history suggests that leagues and governing bodies have little to worry about, not unless athletes are literally sparking up at halftime.

Marijuana use got former NFL running back Ricky Williams in trouble with the league. It caused former defensive lineman Warren Sapp and receiver Randy Moss to slip in the draft. All three dominated on the field. Michael Phelps was famously photographed enjoying a bong. He won many medals at the London Olympics. Tony Villani, a trainer who has worked with 70-some NFL prospects over nearly a decade, once told The Wall Street Journal that he has seen "no correlation" between players' marijuana use and on-field work habits. Last year, ESPN the Magazine's Sam Alipour wrote about widespread marijuana use among members of the University of Oregon football team -- a program that resides in what one Ducks player calls the "weed capital of the world," and a program that also has been a West Coast powerhouse for the last decade:

… back at the off-campus apartment, a muted celebration continues. The smoking Duck appears to be coming down from his high, and he's hungry. He says he'll probably order in, play NBA 2K11 on the Xbox 360 and call it a night. "Some guys drink beer," he says. "They'll get drunk, act crazy, get in trouble. I don't like beer. I like to chill and smoke weed."

Above all, he likes to win football games, a task that will be made more difficult for the Ducks with the departures of stars Thomas and running back LaMichael James to the NFL. To ensure that one of college football's powerhouse programs stays on top, these Ducks will have to put in some work, starting in a few days when they play host to the nation's best prospects on their official recruiting visits. Then, after winter conditioning, there will be another reprieve and, this Duck hopes, more hazy, team-bonding sessions. "Some of us smoke," he says, "and then we went out and won the Rose Bowl. Know what I mean?"

Nate Jackson knows. In his book Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, the former Denver Broncos tight end writes that he used marijuana during his pro football career. The drug didn't hurt his play. It helped him. Helped him cope with physical pain and emotional stress, two constants in high-level athletics.

"I never smoked weed before practice or games, before going to work," Jackson told me earlier this year. "I didn't think that was a good idea. I had no desire to be a stoner. But as the season would wear on and I would be in more and more pain, I found find myself smoking a little bit. It helped the pain. It helped my mind get away from the game. I think it allowed me not to dive too far down into the opioid [pain-killing drugs]."

From firsthand experience, Jackson believes that marijuana can be a safer, healthier alternative to currently accepted sports drug use -- both medicinal and recreational. He's hardly crazy to think so. Like America, professional sports have a serious painkiller problem. Former NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard died in 2011 from an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol. The same year, ESPN and researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published a survey of former NFL players' painkiller use that found: (a) more than half of the respondents had taken opioids during their pro football careers; (b) nearly three-quarters of that group had misused the drugs (c) seven percent of all players said they had misused prescription painkillers within the last 30 days -- an abuse rate more than four times higher than the general population.

None of this should be surprising. As I've written before, opioids such as Vicodin and Percocet are powerful, addictive and potentially deadly. They can cause withdrawal symptoms after a single day of use. They engender rapid tolerance, requiring patients to consume larger and larger doses to achieve the same analgesic effect. They affect the area of the nervous system that controls breathing -- which means that if you overdose, you run the risk of never breathing again. They mix badly with other drugs. Similarly, the injectable anti-inflammatory drug Toradol -- popular in the NFL and also used in Major League Baseball -- can cause kidney damage, ulcers and brain bleeding if given more than several days in a row.

By contrast, marijuana has been used as a medicine for more than 2,000 years. It was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia until 1942, prescribed for ailments ranging from migraines to menstrual cramps. The drug is scientifically associated with "significant analgesic effects" in the treatment of certain types of chronic pain. It can decrease anxiety and fear, depression and tension. It's recommended by doctors for headaches, sleeplessness, light sensitivity and loss of appetite (all of which can be concussion symptoms, coughRogerGoodellcough). A 2011 paper in the American Journal of Sports Medicine that specifically considered marijuana use by athletes found that the drug plays "a major role in the extinction of fear memories by interfering with learned adverse behaviors" and speculated "athletes who experienced traumatic events in their career could benefit from such an effect." As for adverse long-term health effects? Following a six-year study, the United Kingdom Drug Policy Commission likened the risk of using cannabis to that of eating junk food.

But sure: role models, the kids, clean sport with integrity blah blah blah.

Oh, and also compare marijuana to another recreational drug the sports world has absolutely no problem with, probably because said world is too busy counting sponsorship dollars to bother. Last September, the Marijuana Policy Project sponsored a billboard near Denver's NFL stadium that read "Stop Driving Players to Drink! A Safer Choice is Now Legal (Here)." The accompanying image? A football next to a beer mug. Used excessively and irresponsibly, alcohol can produce devastating addiction. Sometimes-fatal disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drunk driving kills someone in America every 48 minutes and costs society more than $51 billion annually. Sports are hardly immune. As Time's Sean Gregory has pointed out, more than 20 NFL players have been arrested on DUI-related charges since June of last year. Last summer, two Broncos front office executives were arrested for drunk driving.

And yet, did the Denver executives immediately resign, a la Pelini? Were they unceremoniously dumped like the Texans' trio? Nope. They served suspensions and were reinstated. The NFL and the Broncos acted -- and take a deep breath here -- rationally. They did not institute mandatory alcohol testing. Or add alcohol to a banned substance list. They did not punish drug use, per se. They punished dangerous behavior stemming from drug abuse. Big difference.

Marijuana policy across sports should follow suit. The Houston Texans and Florida Atlantic can't force the federal government to decriminalize pot. But they could be less uptight within their own organizations. So could leagues and governing bodies. There's no need to test athletes for weed (most employers don't); no need to punish them for use (leave that to the actual legal system); no need to play part-time Crockett and Tubbs when even Attorney General Eric Holder admits that federal prosecutors have no plans to go after marijuana smokers in states that permit recreational use. At the very least, the sports world could adopt a don't ask, don't tell approach -- one that pays lips service to traditional anti-marijuana laws and social mores while recognizing those same laws and mores are rapidly shifting. Consider WADA, which this year amended its rules on marijuana by raising the threshold for a positive test by a factor of 10. The goal? Discouraging in-competition use -- arguably for safety reasons -- while not acting as lifestyle police.

"If we really don't believe overtly that this is causing people to game the system by developing greater athletic skills, shouldn't we really revisit this," National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws executive director Allen St. Pierre told USA TODAY. "It's kind of hard to imagine that cannabis should be thrown into that mixture (of banned drugs) unless it is still viewed as a moral turpitude. Society doesn't seem to view it anymore as a moral turpitude."

Once upon a time, racially integrated competition was unthinkable. So were openly gay athletes. Things change. Marijuana already is legally considered medicine in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Three years ago, an ABC News poll found that 8 of 10 Americans support legalizing marijuana for medical use. Just last month, a Gallup poll found that 58 percent of the country favors legalization for recreational use as well -- the first time ever that a majority of the country has supported legalization, and a 10 percent rise in a year's time. Again, things change. Sports should, too. The alternative is shortsighted. Behind the curve. Just plain dumb. Enough with the Reefer Madness. The real problem with the Texans' trio isn't that they (allegedly) smoked pot; it's that they did so a decade too soon. For Florida Atlantic's sake, I hope Pelini robbed a bank.

Read the original article at Sports on Earth