For years it’s been a, yes, hazy issue — quietly acknowledged, but seldom publicly discussed in detail.
In recent months, however, a chorus of mostly retired NFL players has publicly extolled what it believes are marijuana’s medicinal benefits. These players have wondered why the league still takes what they view as a harshly punitive stance toward the drug.
In March, Baltimore offensive tackle Eugene Monroe became the first active NFL player to publicly advocate marijuana for pain relief. He retired four months later, but not before current Tennessee linebacker Derrick Morgan joined him in an interview with Katie Couric to echo his pro-marijuana views.
NFL vs. other sports
What has brought about this recent surge of candid NFL marijuana dialogue?
Though Cowboys front office officials declined to speak to The News for this story, players and NFL team officials who did speak — some on, others off the record — say they believe the biggest factor is that players increasingly feel singled out and over-disciplined compared with peers in other sports.
NFL sources say there also is frustration among numerous teams’ front offices, and that the marijuana issue has reached a tipping point, increasing the likelihood that the league and NFLPA will negotiate a lessening of marijuana penalties.
Marijuana-use monitoring at the college football level is at best inconsistent, with testing and discipline varying from conference to conference.
A December 2015 investigation by The Associated Press showed that out of 57 Power Five conference schools surveyed, 23 had within the past 10 years reduced penalties for positive marijuana tests, at least in part because of changing legal and societal perspectives on the drug.
But when a prospective NFL player tests positive for marijuana during the scouting combine, as was the case with the Cowboys’ Gregory in 2015, he automatically enters the league’s Intervention Program and is subject to increased testing.
The Intervention Program is administered by league and NFLPA-appointed medical personnel. Teams have lost much of the day-to-day oversight of at-risk players that they had in the 1980s and ’90s, often learning of failed or missed drug tests well after the fact.
Gregory has said he began using marijuana at the University of Nebraska because it helped alleviate anxiety issues. Since joining the Cowboys, he has failed or missed at least four drug tests.
The Cowboys learned Monday that the NFLPA dropped its appeal of Gregory’s 10-game suspension, which is in addition to the four-game suspension he’s currently serving.
It’s unclear how much of Gregory’s plight is marijuana-related, but there is no doubt NFL players face steeper marijuana penalties than athletes in other pro sports.
NFL penalties for positive marijuana tests range from a three-game fine for players during Stage One of the Intervention Program to a four-game suspension during Stage Two to one-year banishment during Stage Three.
NBA players incur a comparatively small fine ($25,000) after their second positive marijuana test and a five-game suspension after a third positive test.
Major League Baseball players are not tested for drugs of abuse, including marijuana, unless they are suspected of abuse. Even if they are tested and produce a positive result, they aren’t subject to suspension and the most they can be fined is $35,000.
“NBA players don’t get tested for street drugs,” Dunbar says. “I’m not sure if that’s true, but that’s what I heard.”
Actually, NBA players get tested four times during the season and twice during the offseason for performance-enhancing drugs and drugs of abuse.
NFL players get tested only once annually, during a period that begins April 20 and ends Aug. 9. But if an incoming NFL player tests positive during the scouting combines, or if a veteran fails a test during the April-to-August period, he enters the Intervention Program and is subject to far more testing.
The NFL is by far the most visible American pro sport, so when a player gets suspended for marijuana use, the news reverberates.
“More people watch football,” Cowboys receiver Lucky Whitehead says. “You definitely don’t hear much about [marijuana] in the NBA and baseball.
“I think that definitely makes it bigger in our sport.”
As one of the Cowboys’ NFLPA representatives, Carr was part of negotiations that resulted in a 2014 amending of marijuana testing guidelines. Players considered it a minor victory when the minimum threshold for a positive marijuana test increased from 15 nanograms of carboxy THC per milliliter of urine to 35 nanograms.
That is still well below MLB’s minimum threshold of 50 nanograms. The World Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees testing of Olympic athletes, set its minimum threshold at 150 nanograms.
“We got the threshold moved up, but it’s crazy because it’s still lower than most sports,” Carr says. “There’s going to be ongoing talks.”
When the new collective bargaining agreement comes up in 2020, he says, “there’s going to be a whole lot of different things changing in this world by that time.”
Along with potential CBA posturing, perhaps another reason NFL players are speaking more freely about marijuana use is the apparent lessening stigma the drug carries in society. Cannabis now is legal for medical use in 25 states.
Texas Heisman Trophy winner and then-Dolphins running back Ricky Williams told 60 Minutes in 2005 that the reason he retired for a year after his second positive marijuana suspension in 2004 was to avoid the humiliation of his test result being made public.
Williams told USA Today in 2014 that had the league’s marijuana-test threshold been 35 nanograms during his playing days, he never would have been relegated to the Intervention Program or been suspended.
“To me, [marijuana use] is not as taboo as it used to be, like when I was growing up and when I first came into the NFL,” Carr says. “With medical advances and studies coming out, it’s kind of pushing it forward and pushing the envelope with the issue.
“I think it needs to be talked about. I think we really need to see some cold, hard facts comparing the use of marijuana to the use of painkillers.”
A local trailblazer
Long before this recent escalation of marijuana discussion, and two years prior to Williams’ first marijuana suspension, one ex-NFL player stood alone in publicly advocating marijuana use.
And he was a Dallas Cowboy: five-time Pro Bowl center and two-time Super Bowl champion Mark Stepnoski.
After his 2001 retirement as a player, Stepnoski made national news by becoming the Texas chapter president of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
On Nov. 15, 2002, Stepnoski appeared on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, with the host firing this opening salvo: “I bet you’re getting some stares down there in Texas, aren’t you?”
O’Reilly that night chided Stepnoski and his “fellow celebrity” marijuana advocates Willie Nelson, Bill Maher, Hunter Thompson and Robert Altman. Yet, 14 years later, Stepnoski has been joined in the cause by a seemingly growing number of NFL players.
“I can’t say it surprises me,” Stepnoski says. “It just took this long to get to this point.”
During his 13-year NFL career, en route to being named to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade team, Stepnoski was known as an avant-garde thinker on matters far deeper than trap-blocking.
Turns out, he had become a lifetime member of NORML in 1998, but didn’t make that public knowledge until he retired and took over the organization’s Texas presidency.
In 2003, Pennsylvania native Stepnoski immigrated to Vancouver, where he and girlfriend Brandi Mollica live with 7-year-old son Sebastian.
“I like the fact that, generally speaking on the West Coast, whether it’s Canada or the United States, attitudes about cannabis seem to be more progressive,” the 49-year-old Stepnoski says. “So I did like that feature of Vancouver.
“Nonetheless, marijuana is still illegal here, too.”
When Cowboys rookie Elliott made national headlines in that Seattle weed shop not far from Vancouver, Stepnoski naturally felt for him.
Twelve days later, on Sept. 6, Elliott again generated unwanted headlines, this time as part of otherwise welcome news.
The city attorney of Columbus, Ohio, announced that his office would not pursue domestic violence charges against Elliott after investigating July accusations made by his former girlfriend.
Court documents obtained by The News contained a text exchange between Elliott and the former girlfriend that seemingly raised questions of possible drug use by Elliott — and might have put him on Intervention Program officials’ radar.
“I know you’re stressed out, if you need me call me,” Elliott’s ex-girlfriend texted. “Just do everything you can to pass your drug test tomorrow. You’ll be okay. I’m here for you.”
“I’m gonna pass,” Elliott responded, adding in a follow-up text, “about to live in this sauna the next 24 hours.”
Stepnoski says he knows little about Elliott and doesn’t follow the NFL closely enough to know whether marijuana is more or less a part of the culture than when he played.
“The thing about it is in the ’90s, just like in the ’80s and ’70s, it was part of culture, period,” Stepnoski says. “It’s been part of youth culture since at least the ’60s.
“Football players are young guys. It’s just part of life. At some point there’s a chance that [marijuana] is going to cross their path and they may feel compelled to try it. Is that something someone should be punished for later in life? I don’t think so.”
Stepnoski says he wasn’t surprised to read that McMahon and Plummer and other former NFL players have credited cannabis-based therapy for not only reducing aches, but improving their post-concussion cognitive abilities.
“That’s really all I ever tried to do, was just educate people,” he says.
How has cannabis helped Stepnoski?
“I feel pretty fortunate, put it that way,” he says. “I don’t take any prescription drugs. I don’t even consume over-the-counter anti-inflammatories or pain relievers. I’m not scheduled for any surgeries. I’m not getting any joints replaced.
“I’m pretty lucky.”
Carr says he is glad to see marijuana become an NFL talking point. Based on what he has seen of the millennial generation, within and outside of football, he expects much marijuana discussion to come.
“The music has changed, even from when I grew up to now,” he says with a laugh. “It’s slow. It’s this weird, zombie-type music.
“It’s not just marijuana. There are more recreational drugs out there that people partake in, I think.”
Carr says one of the reasons he has given the marijuana issue considerable thought is that he wants to coach after his playing career ends.
“I’m going to have to deal with this issue,” he says. “As opposed to trying to ban it, that’s when you get guys doing the wrong thing behind your back. You know, if parents say, ‘Don’t touch it,’ kids are going to find a way to touch it.
“So I think it will be about finding a way to find a common ground. If you’re going to do it, just be responsible. Know your limits. You’ve still got an image to uphold.”