Are you ready for some football! The new NFL season officially kicks off tonight, and a lot more people are ready for football than will actually take part.
By our count, at least 10 NFL players will not take the field this week due to cannabis-related suspensions. We say at least 10 because players like Trey Watts of the St. Louis Rams, Roland McClain of the Dallas Cowboys and Ace Sanders (recently released by the Jacksonville Jaguars) received suspensions for undisclosed substance violations. Likewise, Dion Jordan of the Miami Dolphins was suspended a year for providing a diluted sample during a drug test, and we excluded Marcell Dareus of the Buffalo Bills who had synthetic cannabis.
NFL players are not paid for games missed due to suspensions, and the 10 players currently suspended for cannabis will lose more than $6 million in combined salaries.
Who is suspended? Martavis Bryant, a receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was hit with a four-game suspension for failing multiple cannabis tests. That is the same number of games New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady received for cheating in the AFC Championship Game, yet Brady, not Bryant, got his suspension lifted. The Patriots and Steelers are tonight’s season-opening teams, and Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers and LeGarrette Blount of the Patriots will also sit with cannabis-related suspensions.
Other players hits with suspensions include Oday Aboushi and Sheldon Richardson of the New York Jets, Letroy Guion and Datone Jones of the Green Bay Packers, Jerome Simpson of the San Francisco 49ers, Akeem Spence of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and free agent Ahmad Bradshaw, who last played for the Indianapolis Colts. Bradshaw is one of only eight running backs in history to lead two Super Bowls in rushing, and he led all running backs in touchdown receptions last season despite missing six games. NFL.com cited the cannabis issue as a “reason for interested teams to delay” signing him.
Cannabis prohibition has affected several more players than the ones just listed. The yearlong suspension of Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns stems from alcohol, but he likely received a harsher punishment due to his eight-game suspension in 2014 for cannabis. Gordon also received a suspension for two more games that year for a DWI arrest. Rookie linebacker Shane Ray of the Denver Broncos, who was cited earlier this year for cannabis possession, does not face a suspension because the incident happened a few days before the draft. Likewise, Cowboys rookie Randy Gregory dropped significantly in the draft after testing positive for cannabis at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine. Gregory can help fill in for teammate Greg Hardy, currently serving a four-game suspension for reportedly getting drunk, strangling his ex-girlfriend and threatening to murder her.
To reiterate… suspended four games for domestic violence… same number as Bryant for cannabis violations.
Last year, the NFL increased the cannabis-violation threshold from 15 nanograms of carboxy THC per milliliter of urine to 35 nanograms, which is about one small joint per week. By comparison, the military and baseball place the limit at 50 nanograms and the Olympics at 150 nonograms. If not in a substance abuse program, players are tested once per year between April 20 (that’s just cruel) and August 9. Pass the offseason test, and you’re good for a year, but intervention programs, suspensions, regular drug testing and escalating penalties await those who do not.
A Sporting News story on cannabis and football earlier this year suggested that many teams prefer that players smoke cannabis rather than drink alcohol since drunkenness increases the risk of legal troubles and domestic violence. At the same time, former Pro Bowl player Ricky Williams—twice suspended for cannabis—admitted on 60 Minutes that one of the reasons he retired from football was the constant persecution for cannabis use. A 2014 story in USA Today also quoted Williams suggesting about 40 percent of NFL players use cannabis for pain and stress relief.
Nate Jackson, a former Denver Broncos tight end who authored Slow Getting Up, openly advocates for the NFL to allow cannabis use. As a player, Jackson admits to self-medicating his pain with cannabis to avoid opioid painkillers, which are significantly more addictive and dangerous despite being a common and legal prescription drug. For now, the NFL continues to allow prescribed painkillers and punish cannabis consumption, and it does not appear this will change anytime soon.
Just ask the dozen or so players sitting out this week due to cannabis prohibition.