How many NFL players use marijuana?

The percentage of NFL players who use marijuana might be larger than you think. Should the league change the rules?

Elaine Thompson/AP/File
Every NFL owner and general manager will say that a player's character and behavior in college has always been a focal point of their team's decision making for the draft.

Marijuana may be off limits to National Football League players, but that doesn’t stop many players from using the drug, according to a new report. A league general manager shared his views on pot prevalence in professional football, leaving some wondering if the strict consequences for marijuana violations are justified.

Two first-round draft prospects for the 2015 season have already had trouble with marijuana. After former Nebraska player Randy Gregory failed a drug test and former Missouri player Shane Ray was cited for possession, Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report discussed marijuana with an NFL general manager, who estimated that around 30 percent of players in the league use marijuana.

In January former NFL players Marvin Washington, Brendon Ayanbadejo, and Scott Fujita argued that it's time for the NFL to rethink its marijuana policy in the Huffington Post:

As former NFL players, we recognize our role as leaders and role models. We firmly believe that reforming marijuana policies can, indeed must, go hand in hand with discouraging young people from using marijuana and other drugs ... It's time for the NFL to be a leader and create a rational and science-based marijuana policy.

The NFL's limits on marijuana are stricter than other leagues. In late 2014, the NFL relaxed its testing standards. USA Today reported:

“The updated policy, announced last month, increased the permitted threshold from 15 nanograms of carboxy THC per milliliter of urine to 35 nanograms.”

The difference is slight. Major League Baseball allows 50 nanograms, and the organization that does Olympic testing (the World Anti-Doping Agency) caps the threshold at 150 nanograms.

The discussion around marijuana use in the NFL has garnered increasing attention. Marcellus Wiley, a retired defensive lineman for multiple NFL teams, says he thinks the number of NFL pot users is higher than 30 percent. He estimated that during his NFL career, which ended in 2006, up to half of NFL players used marijuana.

“They are leaning on it to cope with the pain,” said Wiley, reported the Huffington Post. “They are leaning on it to cope with the anxiety of the game.”

In the NFL, players take a drug test once a year, in the offseason between April 20 and August 9. Violations lead to intervention programs. But players who test negative need not worry about testing again until the next year.

Ricky Williams, a former Pro Bowl running back, was suspended twice for failed drug tests. He told USA Today that he thinks the strict standards give the appearance of “vigilant enforcement,” even though it is well known that many players smoke marijuana throughout the season.

“I think if you ask the NFL, they'd say the drug program is for our safety," Mr. Williams told USA Today. "But I think it's more to protect the image of the league.”

The NFL Draft 2015 begins on April 30. Many speculated Mr. Ray would have been a first-round draft pick. Now, with a citation under his belt, he is viewed as a riskier player, and some suspect it may drop him to the third or fourth round. Such a drop could cost him millions.

Ray said in a statement:

I’d like to apologize to my Mother, Fans and prospective NFL teams for my poor judgement Monday morning. I am embarrassed and realize there are consequences for my actions … There are no excuses here and I will take the necessary steps to ensure this will not happen again.

Some have said that Ray’s citation for pot possession was less about the drug and more about bad decision making, especially so close to draft time. Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik told ESPN’s “Mike & Mike”:

This changes Shane Ray dramatically because it’s, to me, such a poor decision this close to the draft. It’s the decision making. What is this guy going to do on Friday or Saturday night before a big game? Is he going to make another poor choice like this?

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