NFL Should Drop Anti-Pot Rule

Because he tested positive for marijuana, former Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams faces the potential loss of his career.
2002 National Football League rushing champion Ricky Williams would like to return to the Miami Dolphins. Not only should he be allowed to do so, the NFL should get rid of the pointless rule that pushed Williams toward early retirement.

That rule, of course, refers to marijuana. Because Williams tested positive for marijuana's chemical byproducts in NFL-mandated drug testing, he has faced escalating penalties, including a $650,000 fine and a four-game suspension.

But there is no good reason why having used marijuana should disqualify Williams from playing professional football.

Let's be clear about a couple of things. First, there is no hint that Williams ever showed up for a game or for practice stoned, something that would indeed be reasonable cause for discipline.

And we're not talking about use of a performance-enhancing drug, which also would be a legitimate subject for discipline. Marijuana may do many things, but increasing speed or strength is not known to be among them.

Williams has faced the potential loss of his career for one reason: The NFL sees nothing wrong with a player choosing to unwind after a game with a beer or a martini, but will punish or expel a player who prefers using a joint to accomplish the same purpose. Indeed, press reports indicate that the penalties faced by Williams for simply testing positive for marijuana are far steeper than he would have faced had he been convicted of drunk driving – an act that could easily kill someone.

In Williams' case, we aren't even talking about purely recreational use, equivalent to that after-the-game beer. He suffers from a condition called social anxiety disorder, for which he used the prescription antidepressant Paxil, but he has said that marijuana helps him more than pharmaceutical drugs. His assertion is backed by considerable science: A White House-commissioned report by the Institute of Medicine listed anxiety among the ailments that "can be mitigated by marijuana," and several other studies suggest that marijuana can treat a number of mood disorders. Indeed, the Israeli army is now using THC – the marijuana component that produces the "high" – as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

But let's put that aside and assume, for the sake of argument, that Williams would just rather have a joint than a brew. Since there is no reason to think marijuana would give Williams or the Dolphins an unfair advantage over opponents, why should the NFL care?

Is it because marijuana is addictive? No. Research has shown marijuana to be less addictive than booze, roughly comparable to coffee.

Is it because marijuana causes violence? No. Research has consistently shown that while alcohol is a major cause of violent, aggressive behavior, marijuana typically has the precise opposite effect.

Is it because marijuana can do great physical or mental harm? No. While heavy alcohol use can indeed cause serious and even life-threatening damage to the brain, liver and other organs, marijuana has no such severe effects.

Is it because of the risk of overdose? No. Accidental alcohol overdoses kill Americans every year, as do plenty of other legal drugs (acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is estimated to cause over 400 fatal cases of liver failure annually). Marijuana has never, ever been proven to cause a fatal overdose.

The only reason for the NFL rule is because marijuana is illegal. Like our laws, the NFL has created an Alice-in-Wonderland system under which the more dangerous drug is allowed (not to mention celebrated and advertised during game telecasts), while use of the less harmful substance is severely punished.

Foolish, destructive laws can take years, even decades, to change. But the NFL should drop its anti-marijuana rule immediately.
Steve Fox is director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project.
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