The Upcoming Revised NFL Drug Use Policy
The NFL is putting the final touches on a new drug policy. This new policy, which is the first major update since the last policy in 2010, is between the NFL Players Association and the NFL. The significant changes are with regard to HGH (Human Growth Hormone) testing and marijuana use. Having treated a number of active and former NFL players and worked with the NFL Players Association as well as being the founder and CEO of one of the leading addiction treatment centers in the nation, I feel comfortable making a comment on the subject of substance abuse in the NFL.
The NFL works diligently to do everything they can to limit the use of performance enhancing drugs the players use, to create an even playing field for all athletes. Athletes are tempted to use performance enhancing drugs to give them an edge in making a 53 man squad – and to get the benefits, financial and otherwise, that go with being a professional football player – paying the consequences later. The NFL will now be testing appropriately for HGH, a supplement that is used in conjunction with steroids to enhance performance. This is the first time the league will test for HGH. While athletes have found some ways to get around testing for steroids, the testing for and use of HGH is a tell and therefore it is appropriate for the NFL to test for this substance.
The changes with regard to marijuana use are a bit more complicated. On the one hand, it looks as if the new policy will allow for higher levels of marijuana to be in a person’s system before they test positive. This is important. Let me give an example. Because marijuana is so much more potent than it was in the past, it is now possible for an athlete to be in a state where marijuana use is legal and to make a poor choice, such as sitting in a small room playing cards or watching movies with friends who are smoking marijuana. We know of at least one case recently where this has happened and the evidence is indisputable that NFL players can test dirty for marijuana by being around those who use it. Such instances really aren’t a clear indication of problematic drug use. Keep in mind that in the last 20 years, the NFL has not changed its levels of marijuana needed to cause a positive test, but in that same period, the potency of marijuana has increased somewhere in the range of tenfold.
What does it take to test positive for marijuana? The current threshold for marijuana (THC) in the NFL has been 15 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL). Compare that to the World Doping Agency for the Olympics (150 ng/mL). For airline pilots the threshold is 50 ng/mL. Clearly, the levels are far too low for the NFL and need to be revised to be appropriately in line with other sports. Even a pilot who would fly a commercial jet with hundreds of lives in his hands has a higher allowable THC level than football players!
Also under consideration and revision is the use of non-performance enhancing drugs in the off-season. It is significant that there is no longer punishment handed down for illegal non-performance enhancing drug use in the off season. It is unclear at this point if illegal drug use in the off-season will count as a strike against the player, and it may because the NFL and the NFL Players Association logically would like to prevent substance abuse, especially that which rises to the level of addiction. What doesn’t make sense is that if someone is smoking marijuana in a social setting in a measured way, in a responsible way in the off-season and they don’t use in the regular season, then they don’t have a substance abuse problem, and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of addiction. Addiction means you don’t have control over it, it has control over you. The addict can’t make that choice, but most social marijuana users can. In my opinion, if you use responsibly in the off season, that isn’t the business of your employer.
The NFL report isn’t finalized yet. They’re still refining it and it hasn’t been posted on the NFL’s website. But my initial impression is that the piece could use more work and revision, for the benefit and protection of both the franchises and the players. We know better and we can do better.