NFL, other leagues should dump pot testing

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jermaine Kearse smiled before the question was even finished.

Should the NFL — and all professional leagues, for that matter — stop testing players for marijuana?

“Awww, man, why do you have to put me on the spot like that?” the Seattle Seahawks receiver griped.

Persuaded this wasn’t one of those gotcha moments during Super Bowl week, Kearse tepidly came up with a reply.

“Whatever is best for the players,” he said.

The best thing for players in every league, be it the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball, would be to remove pot from the list of banned substances. No one should ever have to endure what Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner is going through.

Instead of playing in the biggest game of his life, he’s stuck at home, forced to watch the game on TV like most everyone else, because of a positive test for marijuana. Since he had also tested positive as a rookie back in 2005, not to mention some issues over whether he should have continued to be tested even when he wasn’t employed by an NFL team, Browner is suspended indefinitely and could wind up missing a full season.

“If marijuana is legal in some states, I don’t understand how an employer has the right to control what an employee does after working hours,” said Peter Schaffer, Browner’s agent. “It’s just not right.”

No, it’s not.

Mason Tvert, right, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, prepares to deliver a petition to National Football League headquarters, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in New York. Kevin Fitzgerald, left, director of building security, waits for the handoff. T(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Mason Tvert, right, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, prepares to deliver a petition to National Football League headquarters, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in New York. Kevin Fitzgerald, left, director of building security, waits for the handoff. T(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The NFL Players Association needs to get crackin’ on this issue right away, even as it tries to reach agreement with the league on a matter that has gotten far more attention: testing for human growth hormone, a performance enhancing drug that is difficult to detect.

As it stands now, pot is lumped with cocaine, meth, opiates and PCP as a banned “substance of abuse,” even though there’s no evidence to suggest that it’s nearly as harmful as those more powerful drugs. In fact, proponents of legalizing marijuana will insist that it causes fewer problems than booze, and they make a pretty compelling case.

In the NFL, the first positive test for any of those drugs requires a player to enter the league’s treatment program. Subsequent violations result in a fine and then a four-game suspension.

The NBA’s policy on marijuana is similar: treatment after the first positive test, a $25,000 fine if it happens again, a five-game suspension for the third violation.

The NHL’s policy is a bit murky, with league and union officials giving conflicting answers over possible penalties for marijuana use. Essentially, it seems, if a hockey player has “dangerously high levels” of pot in his system during testing — whatever that means — he is placed in the league’s substance-abuse program.

The guidelines in baseball are the most convoluted of all, setting different standards for major and minor leaguers. For those on the 40-man roster, the use of marijuana, hashish and synthetic THC is not subject to a suspension, and there have been no announced penalties of any kind for pot use since the Joint Drug Agreement went into effect more than a decade ago. For those with minor-league contracts, a second positive test brings a 50-day suspension, a third violation results in a 100-game ban, and a fourth gets you kicked out of the game for good.

The issue of legalizing marijuana has come to the forefront since both Colorado and Washington took that very step, and the Super Bowl has become a convenient conduit for those on both sides of the issue since the AFC champion Denver Broncos and NFC champion Seahawks come from those states. Not far from MetLife Stadium, dueling billboards were put up by supporters and opponents of legalization.

Some have dubbed it “The Stoner Bowl,” and even NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has some fun with the issue.

“What kind of joint is this?” he joked at his state-of-the-players-union news conference.

But there are serious issues that need to be addressed, especially when it comes to studying the medicinal uses of marijuana. There are many who believe it can help players cope with pain in the short term and better deal with the long-range effects of their brutal game. To his credit, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says the league could consider marijuana as a possible treatment for concussions if there’s science to back it up.

“These guys are hurting, they’re in pain,” Schaffer said. “They go through 60 or 70 train wrecks every Sunday.”

While most players dodged marijuana questions during Super Bowl week — even the outspoken Richard Sherman — Schaffer has no doubt that a majority would be in favor of dumping pot from the testing program. In fact, he believes that might be a way to break the stalemate over HGH testing — the players could sign off on the league’s proposed policy in exchange for removing marijuana as a banned substance.

Former NFL player Brendon Ayanbadejo — best known for his support of gay marriage — said he knew of teammates smoking marijuana right in the hotel before one of his Super Bowls.

Most telling, he sounded like it was no big deal.

“I would much rather have my teammates smoking weed,” Ayanbadejo wrote on Twitter, “than popping highly addictive narcotics!”

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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