How watershed change in NFL marijuana drug policy reduced punishments, increased ‘compassion’ for players

For many years, the NFL drug policy had been regarded as extremely strict, with multiple players running afoul of the league’s rules.

A compromise over the NFL’s drug policy reached during collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the NFL Players Association and the NFL Management Council two years ago led to a watershed moment in league history, and what’s now being characterized as a more compassionate, progressive approach toward players.

For many years, the NFL substance-abuse policy had been regarded as extremely strict, with multiple players running afoul of the league’s rules and regulations. That triggered a series of lengthy suspensions, some falling into the indefinite category for reinstatement for repeat offenders, such as wide receiver Josh Gordon.

Now, it’s a revised policy in terms of intent and practice.

How the NFL revised its drug policy

From April 20 — an unofficial marijuana holiday — to August 9, the NFL no longer tests for the Delta 9-THC-carboxylic acid found in cannabis. Under the rules, all players are tested once for substances during that span with the exception of THC. And that substance is now only tested between the start of training camp and the first preseason game on August 9.

Beyond the limited testing for marijuana, a failed test threshold has been increased over four times to 150 ng/ml from the previous 35 ng/ml. And there are no longer suspensions for failing a test with limited exceptions. For a player to be suspended, they have to reach Stage Two of the drug program and fail to cooperate with mandatory testing or care.

Former Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle La’el Collins, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, was suspended last season for missing a series of drug tests. Failing tests now trigger fines. Collins was the only player suspended by the league last season for a violation of the substance-abuse policy.

Many athletes consider marijuana as helpful for treating pain issues. It’s also regarded as safer than prescription pain medicine, especially highly addictive opioids.

‘New policy has improved’

“It’s obvious that the league’s new policy has improved significantly,” said lawyer Daniel Moskowitz, a go-to attorney for multiple NFL players in matters with the league’s drug policy involving the NFL Management Council.

“It’s a more compassionate, caring approach that shows an understanding of mental health. The over-encompassing purpose of the new policy is to no longer be punitive toward drug use with regards to marijuana but to focus on the mental health and the betterment of the players.

“That’s obvious in the increased resources NFL teams are devoted with mental health specialists assigned to every team. The guys are able to stay on the field and get the resources they need for their wellness off the field.”

NFL pays for marijuana research

With multiple states having legalized marijuana, the NFL adapted its policy while adding a 17th regular-season game to the schedule.

In February, the NFL awarded $1 million to a pair of research projects. The first project was a look at “Effects of Cannabinoids on Pain and Recovery From Sports-Related Injuries in Elite Athletes.” The second one: “Naturally Produced Cannabinoids for Pain Management and Neuroprotection from Concussion and Participation in Contact Sports.”

Funding studies like these reflects a huge change in the league’s thinking.

Gordon had been outspoken in the past about his mental health issues and relying on marijuana as a coping mechanism. He was signed to the Chiefs’ practice squad after previous stints with the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Seattle Seahawks. Gordon was limited to 11 games for the Browns after being named to the Pro Bowl in 2013 due to substance-abuse suspensions. He missed the entire 2015, 2016, and 2020 seasons.

Under the old policy, an initial failed test triggered a referral to the substance-abuse program. A second violation: a fine of two game checks. A third violation: a fine of four game checks. A fourth violation: a four-game suspension. A fifth violation: a 10-game suspension. A sixth violation: a one-year ban from the league without pay.

Randy Gregory an example of progress from NFL’s revised drug policy

Another prominent player who has overcome being indefinitely suspended previously and is now in good standing with the league is Denver Broncos defensive end Randy Gregory, a former Dallas Cowboys standout who was suspended multiple times. Gregory signed a five-year, $70 million free agent contract with the Broncos.

“The new policy is much better, but it can still be a minefield for any player enrolled in the program in terms of understanding exactly what they need to do to be compliant, especially in updating their information for drug testing,” Moskowitz said. “Overall, this is to the credit of the NFL and how they view disciplinary matters. It’s being done with more of an eye toward, ‘Let’s help this player,’ through the resources available rather than being punitive.”

Of course, the revised policy also ensures, for the most part, that players will be on the field instead of banished from team facilities along with national headlines announcing their respective punishments.

“I would call that a win-win,” Moskowitz said. “It’s important to keep in mind, too, that there’s going to be a day when most of the states have legalized marijuana and the league having a direct conflict with the law in multiple states. That was an issue for the NFL. The biggest thing is this is about wellness.”

Aaron Wilson is the NFL Insider for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL.


Every day, get free NFL updates sent straight to your inbox!