In a two-page memo issued to his staff and made publicly available last Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to seek the toughest possible charges and sentences for drug crime suspects, a drastic shift from the more lenient approach that became a pillar of Barack Obama’s presidency.
In conjunction with revised U.S. sentencing guidelines, Obama commuted the sentences of more than 1,700 drug offenders, including those of the mother and grandmother of Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas.
Sessions’ new order created a wave of uncertainty in the medical marijuana industry and could factor heavily into the NFL Players Association’s effort to change the league’s approach to marijuana use among players.
“Because (the NFL) can just fall back and say it’s still illegal on the federal level and you don’t have an administration that is as favorable or as friendly toward cannabis as you did,” said Marvin Washington, a former Broncos defensive end who has been a significant player in the push for cannabis allowance in the NFL. “Now you have an attorney general that has come out with some wild, inaccurate statements that just boggles the mind about marijuana, about crime, and it’s like he wants to turn this into the ‘War on Drugs 2.0’ and take it back to the late ’80s, early ’90s.”
The legal landscape has changed drastically over the years, but only at the state level; 29 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana, making it acceptable in all but nine cities that host NFL games.
But the federal view of marijuana hasn’t budged. If anything, it’s become more stringent in recent months as the Trump administration has vowed harsher punishments for violators of federal law.
Marijuana is labeled a Schedule I narcotic by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, classified as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” per the Controlled Substances Act. Research is limited, in large part because of the classification, but anecdotal support of marijuana’s medical value continues to soar.
Sessions’ order comes two months after he railed against marijuana, saying: “I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana — so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly, once again, that using drugs will destroy your life.”
And it comes only three months after White House press secretary Sean Spicer warned of “greater enforcement” of recreational marijuana laws.
“It’s like nothing has really changed, in many ways,” former NFL offensive lineman Eben Britton said. “It’s all nonsense until anything actually happens. If they want to spend time and money and resources dedicated to rolling back things that are already in place that would be a total step in the wrong direction, then fine. That’s the country we deserve, I guess. We’re getting exactly what we deserve and whether we like it or not, these guys are in office and we put them there and it’s nobody’s fault but ours. … It’s absolutely disgusting. All we can do is keep fighting the good fight and keep speaking our truth.”
Although the specifics of the NFLPA’s impending proposal to the league haven’t been released, the union has said it plans to suggest a “less punitive” approach to marijuana use out of regard for players’ health. That could mean reducing the penalties players face for testing positive. It could be eliminating testing for marijuana altogether, like the NHL. It could mean allowing the use of medical marijuana through therapeutic use exemptions, which allows players to take certain prohibited substances, such as Adderall, to treat a diagnosed medical problem.
“We’re looking at the issue comprehensively when it comes to medical marijuana, but we’re looking at it as an issue of pain,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in February. “Separately, we’re looking at how marijuana is being treated currently under the drug program. … Talking with (NFLPA director of player wellness) Nyaka (NiiLampti) and the therapists and the doctors, one thing we’ve always tried to do is when we’ve approached issues like this, what’s the right thing to do clinically, what’s the right thing to do medically, what’s the right thing to do therapeutically? As we look at the current way in which marijuana is being treated under the drug policy, we have questions as to whether those three things can be done in a better way.”
The union declined to comment on Sessions’ order, but it reiterated that it’s impending proposal is “a health issue” and that its collective-bargaining agreement policies are bound by state and federal laws.
In accordance with the current CBA, NFL players are tested in the offseason and face disciplinary action for a positive test of more than 35 nanograms of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) per milliliter of urine. THC is the psychoactive component of marijuana. The penalties can be steep, considering the NFL’s relatively short schedule, non-guaranteed player contracts and the limited life of a player’s pro career.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league is open to considering changes to the substance abuse policy. But earlier this month he elicited strong reactions to comments he made while a guest on ESPN radio.
“You’re ingesting smoke, so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say,” he said.
Critics, including Washington and Britton, argued that cannabis can be consumed in myriad ways, and that Goodell’s statement reflected an antiquated but still widely held view of marijuana.
Washington, an 11-year NFL veteran, is a staunch advocate of cannabidiol, a component of cannabis that has only trace levels of THC and often infused in oil for oral consumption or used in topical treatments. He, like many others, simply want the evidence and research to be considered.
“There’s frustration, not only with the commissioner but with people of authority, including people in the Justice Department. If you think players just want to light a blunt and have fun, well there’s a small percentage of guys who are going to do that,” Washington said. “But most of the guys, they’re trying to feel better. … The last time I played in the NFL was 1999. We didn’t know, but these players are more educated and I know there are players in the NFL right now that are medicating themselves with cannabis. And they’re doing it in a variety of ways.
“That whole thing about getting tough on crime and getting tough on drugs, the NFL can fall back and say it’s not the time, not with this current administration. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I always said that he can slow the movement down but I don’t think he can stop it.”