The marijuana debate in this country takes several forms, most notably its drain on the criminal justice system relative to its significance as a vice. Does it make sense to fill courtrooms and jails with people who have used or distributed a substance that the president of the United States has declared no more dangerous than alcohol?
A similar question could be applied to the NFL: As more states legalize marijuana for medicinal and/or recreational use, is the league's testing and discipline growing disproportionate? We seem to be moving in that direction and -- depending on which scholar you read -- the league might in fact be missing the opportunity to allow a more natural pain treatment than prescription drugs.
First, however, is the issue of discipline. All players are subject to the NFL's policy on substances of abuse. (You can find the complex set of conditions for entrance and discipline here.) Once in the program, repeat offenders can be fined, suspended or banished from the league based on the circumstances.
Related discipline collectively costs players millions of dollars a year, and so it makes sense that 75 percent of those surveyed in the latest NFL Nation Confidential poll agreed with Obama's assessment. No one wants to lose money. If the president thinks one is no more dangerous than the other, then it makes sense to support a stance wherein a player who smokes isn't punished any more than a player who drinks.
While collectively bargained, and thus tacitly endorsed by players, the NFL's position on marijuana has lost some relevance. As we've seen this summer, its broad discipline structure punishes a multiple marijuana offender more severely than a first-time perpetrator of domestic violence.
That scope is extreme at a time when two states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and a total of 23 plus the District of Columbia allow it for medicinal purposes. It seems out of touch, if nothing else, that Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon will miss the entire season -- at a cost of nearly $900,000 in salary -- because of a pileup of marijuana-related incidents.
What does the NFL gain from punishing marijuana users? In the 1980s drug war era, its stance was politically and socially necessary. An evolution of thought has begun separating marijuana from other drugs, and a militant stance against it is not necessarily a public virtue.
To be clear, this is not to make a value judgment on the use of marijuana. It's about reclassifying it among other vices in the context of 2014. Remember, Obama followed his initial comment by saying: "It's not something I encourage, and I've told my daughters I think it's a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy."
Pulling back on marijuana discipline isn't the same as endorsing its use. An ambitious player would be no more advised to practice or play while high than he would when drunk. It's fair to approach marijuana in the NFL workplace in the same indirect way as alcohol: Do what you want on your own time, but make sure you answer the bell when called. Like alcohol, marijuana should impact your employment if it hinders your performance. (Here is a paper, re-published by the Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington, on the impact of marijuana on athletic performance.)
Discipline, of course, is only part of the larger discussion. Are there ways that marijuana could help players and thus positively impact the NFL? Specifically, can marijuana provide an alternative to prescription drugs for a labor force that finds itself in pain throughout the season and beyond?
As is to be expected, there is scholarly debate on both sides of that question. This website offers a balanced look at research on the effectiveness of marijuana as a pain reliever -- or, in the words of this paper, a "pain distracter." Recent revelations of the use and abuse of Toradol, which players long used to mask pain inflicted on game day, adds weight and relevance to this question. At the very least, marijuana deserves serious and meaningful consideration for players who want to avoid ingesting prescriptions and chemicals at the rate of earlier generations.
In short, viewpoints are changing in America and it's time for the NFL to follow suit. Reducing and/or eliminating discipline is a good start, but the league should also embrace the possibility of a therapeutic role as well. Society is less expectant of powerful action against marijuana users, and, if anything, the NFL appears disproportionately vigilant. Frankly, there are more important things to worry about.