Crime, punishment seem out of whack in NFL

League's marijuna policy seems excessive while other penalties are inadequate

The NFL's collective bargaining agreement requires a minimum one-year suspension for Stage 3 violators of the league's substance abuse policy, such as Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington.

Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports

Let's start by making this point clear: Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington knew the consequences of his actions, whether it was smoking marijuana as his agent seemed to confirm in a prepared statement, or missing the league-mandated test as his teammate, John Abraham asserted last week in a tweet that has since been deleted.

The penalty for both is clearly stated in the NFL's Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse, and those penalties were agreed to by both the NFL and the NFL Players' Association in the latest collective bargaining agreement.

There is no intent here to paint Daryl Washington as a victim or a sympathetic figure because he can't play football for at least a year. As teammate Carson Palmer noted: "You've just got to abide by the rules, know what the rules are and know what you can and can't do."

That being said, is it time for the NFL to relax its policy on marijuana in particular? More to the point, isn't it ridiculous that a player can be suspended a year for smoking marijuana, and face lesser penalties for greater offenses, such as knocking his spouse or girlfriend around?

"I do think the league's policy needs to be discussed," Washington's agent, Jordan Woy wrote in an email in which he declined comment on the specifics of Washington's suspenion. "While I do not condone marijuana use since it is illegal in 20 of the 22 states where teams play, it certainly is different than performance enhancing drugs to get the upper hand on your opponents. It is also not the same as cocaine, heroin, etc.  

"I think most experts would agree that cigarettes and alcohol are worse for you than marijuana. However, it is illegal and against the rules. The players know what the rules are, so I am not making excuses for anyone who violates the rule. However, to lose an entire NFL season and the millions of dollars associated with that I believe is harsh. Losing an entire season in the NFL is harsh when you realize that players' careers are so short. There is no easy answer to this situation, but it should be discussed and looked at."

There have been multiple reports that the league is already considering altering its policy on marijuana (and perhaps other substances), although no league official has gone on the record.

Among the points being made:

-- The World Anti-Doping Agency, an agency with an exhaustive and lengthy body of research at its disposal, has a higher threshold for a positive test than the NFL currently does (attempts to reach WADA officials were unsuccessful).

-- The national mood toward marijuana has changed dramatically. In separate polls conducted at the end of 2013 and the start of 2014 by Gallup, CBS and NBC News/Wall Street Journal, a majority of Americans now favor the outright legalization of marijuana use.

The players know what the rules are, so I am not making excuses for anyone who violates the rule. However, to lose an entire NFL season and the millions of dollars associated with that I believe is harsh ... when you realize that players' careers are so short.

Jordan Woy, agent for Daryl Washington

-- Two states, Washington and Colorado, have already legalized marijuana outright. Since the medical marijuana movement began, 22 states and the District of Columbia, starting with California in 1996, have legalized medical cannabis or effectively decriminalized it. More states are expected to take up the full legalization issue on the ballot, with Alaska, California and Oregon the most likely to come next, while proponents are pushing to put the issue on the ballot in Arizona as soon as 2016. Many analysts believe that legalization of marijuana in most states is no longer a matter of if, it's a matter of when.

The NFL Players Association wants to study the research that has led to the legalization of marijuana in some states for medicinal use, but it believes the policy should be changed regardless.

The hold-ups may be a disagreement over arbitration of discipline and HGH testing. In some instances, the NFLPA wants discipline appeals to be heard by an independent arbitrator. The NFL won't budge off giving commissioner Roger Goodell the final say.

On Wednesday, NFLPA president and former Cardinal Eric Winston declined comment on the league's marijuana policy, but he reiterated an opinion of Goodell that he mentioned to multiple outlets recently: "He wants to hold all the cards, and he wants to be the judge, jury and executioner, and we're not going to go for an un-American system like that."

There is hypocrisy inherent in the NFL's current policy. For starters, what exactly are players being pumped with to get them back on the field while hurt?

There is also well-chronicled societal hypocrisy related to marijuana use vs. alcohol use, and the related damage and costs associated with each drug.

And the notion of marijuana as a gateway drug still persists despite its complete debunking and abandonment by medical science for the past 15 years.  

With all that we now know and believe about marijuana, how then it is still possible for a player to be suspended a year for use?

Maybe the NFL doesn't want to get ahead of the legal curve on this issue. Maybe it wants to wait until a majority of states have legalized marijuana so that it is not perceived as condoning illegal behavior. That's a reasonable stance. Maybe it feels a one-year ban for a Stage 3 offender is still in order.

But if that's the case, the NFL had better be consistent and fair. It had better think long and hard about what form of punishment Colts owner Jim Irsay deserves for his off-field trangressions. It had better decide how a DUI that poses far greater danger to society compares to smoking marijuana. It had better deliver a much heavier hammer stroke when a guy is caught on film dragging his unconscious girlfriend out of an elevator, even if he avoids prosecution. It had better hand down a doubly severe punishment when a guy pleads guilty to assault, as Washington did.

If a one-year ban is the punishment that fits the crime for repeated marijuana use (or test evading), the ban better be longer for these far greater offenses or the NFL's punitive system loses all credibility.

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