Election Day is tomorrow, and while the nation is mostly preoccupied with the presidential race, nine states are deciding whether to legalize cannabis in some form. Five of those states (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada) are voting on full legalization, while another four (Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota) are deciding whether to permit medical marijuana. Polls show the ballot measures winning in all nine states, and soon we may see nearly 25% of Americans living in a state where adults can buy cannabis without fear of being arrested.
So, 2016 will likely represent a turning point in our nation’s failed prohibition of a plant that has clear medicinal properties and fewer negative health consequences than many legal drugs. You would think that NFLers would rejoice at this news, yet the League continues to maintain a ban on cannabis that has caused disruptions to the careers of many athletes. Their only crime was to use a drug that is less addictive and less harmful than the opioids that team doctors use to help athletes cope with the wear and tear of NFL play.
Dr. Sue Sisley, a clinician and cannabis researcher in Arizona, has been an ally of athletes in many sports, working with teams to enable players to receive medical marijuana through “therapeutic use exemptions” (TUEs). While she’s found success in other leagues, there has never been a TUE for cannabis granted in the NFL. She has worked with Eugene on his efforts to end the cannabis ban, and she knows David as a Board member of DFCR. Understanding the potential for synergy between athletes and physicians on theissue of cannabis policy, she introduced the two of us, and a powerful collaboration was born.
The NFL has banned cannabis use for all its athletes, including those living in states where marijuana is legal. This is a microcosm of the problem with cannabis policies in society at large. The prohibition in both cases reflects a fundamental ignorance of the science of cannabis, which is generally less harmful for adults than cigarettes, alcohol and prescription pain medications.
Another similarity is found in the way that misguided policies on marijuana have disproportionately affected people of color, both in sports, and across the United States. In sports, the discrepancy is seen in thetop leagues of baseball, basketball, football and hockey. The two leagues that consist of mostly African-American players—the NFL at 69% and NBA at 74%—will suspend players for testing positive for marijuana use, which robs these athletes of precious time at the peak of their careers. On the other hand, the two sports that have few African-American players—the MLB at 8% and the NHL at5%—do not suspend players who use marijuana.
Right now, there are 18 NFLers who have been suspended for drug infractions. About half of these suspensions are for marijuana use, and all of the athletes are people of color. In a league where many players believe that most NFLers use marijuana, this racial discrepancy is suspicious at best.
However, the implicit racial bias seen in cannabis prohibition goes far beyond the NFL. Black Americans are over four times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense compared with their white counterparts, despite similar usage rates. An arrest record prevents many African-Americans from getting a job, renting a home, or accessing benefits and programs they may need to support themselves and their families.
There can be no doubt: The ban on cannabis contributes to racial disparities both on and off the field. It reflects poorly on the governance of the NFL as well as the United States.
What benefit have we seen from marijuana prohibition in football or in the nation? Over 22,000,000 Americans use marijuana despite its illegality in most of the country, while an estimated 50-60% of NFLers are thought to be cannabis consumers.
If the purpose of prohibition was to prevent underage use, then that, too, is a failed effort. For decades, 80% and 90% of all 18 year olds have reported easy access to marijuana, in part because the point-of-sale is unregulated and dealers don’t check IDs. Over the same period of time, preventive education reduced the rates of underage alcohol and tobacco, while underage marijuana use rose. Consider what this says about the effectiveness of prohibiting the adult use of so-called ‘soft’ drugs.
The struggle to end the ban on cannabis in the NFL and the United States has fused two unlikely partners into the dream team of sound cannabis policy. Behind Eugene are current and former NFLers who support his advocacy and bring attention to this injustice. David leads a group of nationally recognized physicians who want to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. Today we stand together at the line of scrimmage, ready to tackle the formidable forces of ignorance and inertia that still block the nation and the NFL from reaching the end zone of cannabis prohibition. We invite our fellow athletes and physicians to join us on the field, and we ask the rest of you cheer us on to victory.
By: Eugene Monroe and David L. Nathan
David L. Nathan, MD, DFAPA is a psychiatrist, writer, and educator in Princeton NJ. He is the founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and served as our first President. Dr. Nathan is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. While maintaining a full-time private practice, he serves as Director of Continuing Medical Education for the Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS) and Director of Professional Education at Princeton House Behavioral Health (PHBH). While serving on the steering committee of New Jersey United For Marijuana Reform (NJUMR.org), Dr. Nathan was surprised by the absence of any national organization to act as the voice of physicians who wish to guide our nation along a well-regulated path to cannabis legalization. This need was the inspiration for Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.