Acceptance of campus pot smoking altering NFL's drug compass

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider
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Marijuana use among college athletes reportedly continues to rise. (Getty Images)  
Marijuana use among college athletes reportedly continues to rise. (Getty Images)  

There is a growing sentiment among some NFL team executives that marijuana use in college football has grown so exponentially over the past five years that it has caused a shift in how NFL teams think of players who use the drug.

Marijuana use was never an NFL career killer but it was viewed as a possible omen of potential problems to come. A positive pot test meant possible injured draft stock. That was then. Now, pot use in college has grown so much, scouts and others say, NFL teams are scrambling to re-evaluate players who fail those tests, and in some cases, significantly downplaying its importance.

Some executives maintain the number of college football players that use marijuana has doubled in recent years alone, and some team officials estimate maybe as high as four in 10 draft-eligible players from this draft have failed at least one school administered drug test, and two in 10 multiple drug tests.

The end result of the perceived increased usage, some executives say, is that teams are totally rethinking how they view players that test positive for marijuana. While a positive test result still raises a red flag, some teams believe that franchises are now almost forced to ignore those test results, or at least dramatically de-emphasize them during the evaluation process, because they have become so numerous.

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Thus as more college players use pot, there are fewer mechanisms for NFL teams to differentiate between the casual user, and the regular one, since now pot smoking is viewed by college football players as normal behavior.

One NFL scout tells a story that exemplifies the changing college football culture and the challenges it presents to the NFL. He was interviewing a prospect that will likely be drafted in the first three rounds. The scout wanted to understand why marijuana use was growing so quickly. He asked the prospect. The player responded: "We see marijuana the way you older guys see beer."

The issue isn't that there's marijuana usage among college football players. Pot smoking has been happening since there was football and pot.

What NFL team officials believe is an increasing problem is that so many college football players are using marijuana so routinely that the drug becomes a regular part of their lives and upon reaching the NFL, where players are randomly drug tested, they leave themselves more vulnerable to being caught.

A handful of teams have always devalued positive marijuana tests but most believed such a result demonstrated a lack of discipline. That mindset is changing as NFL executives believe that pot is becoming as normal a part of college football life as jockstraps and pop quizzes.

This view was exemplified by the blunt comments of Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, who recently said that marijuana use in college was no longer a draft deal-breaker.

"The league has really changed over the years," Mayhew said. "If you go back 10, 15 years ago, and a guy had a positive test, that was a big deal. That was something to be very concerned about. It still is, but not at the level it was years ago. There are certain things we want to hear from guys. There are certain things we don't want to hear from guys. It doesn't help us to tell you [media] what those things are."

But those around the sport say Mayhew is only half right. It's not the league that has changed, it's that college football has.

"Basically because use in college football has increased, the NFL has been forced to alter its views on marijuana," said a scout. "We're bending because we have to, not because we want to."

Team executives point to the Lions as an example of the dangers of bending these beliefs. Lions running back Mikel Leshoure, defensive lineman Nick Fairley, and offensive lineman Johnny Culbreath were all arrested this offseason for marijuana-related offenses. The Lions picked all three players in last year's draft.

It is highly unusual for three players just out of college, all on one NFL team, to be arrested in a single offseason for marijuana use. This, scouts say, is proof large numbers of players become casual about their collegiate marijuana use and carry that casual attitude into the pros where the chances of being caught either by law enforcement or testing increase.

Across college football there is a great deal of evidence that marijuana use among football players has grown beyond the occasional smoke at a party and into an entirely new stratosphere. Stories of mass marijuana use among football players have appeared in connection with some of the nation's top programs including LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Oregon and TCU, among others.

Tony Barnhart, CBSSports.com college football columnist, reports that an athletic director at a BCS school told him "the marijuana situation is the worst I've ever seen it."

Barnhart writes one of the main problems is there is no single testing policy across college football. Some colleges don't even bother to test due to the financial cost or state laws prohibit that kind of testing. Some schools that do test require an absurd number of tests to be kicked off the team. CBSSports.com's Brett McMurphy says that Oregon, which reportedly had a widespread marijuana problem among its football team, requires four positive drug tests for dismissal.

Just this past season Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu was among three LSU players suspended for a game. ESPN reported he had tested positive for synthetic marijuana. Two Georgia players have been connected to the drug, and former Auburn running back Michael Dyer has stated that he smoked synthetic marijuana on a regular basis.

Four TCU football players were arrested in February as part of a six-month police sting. Police say TCU players sold marijuana to undercover officers after class or around the practice facility, and most of the team failed a surprise drug test given just several weeks before the bust.

It's been reported a handful of prospects have failed scouting combine drug tests (which happens every year), but team executives say combine drug failures haven't increased dramatically and that either the extremely addicted or undeniably stupid fail those since they have months of notice about an impending test.

While school-administered drug tests are supposed to remain private, NFL teams find out this information easily. League and team investigators get this information sometimes from coaches on the college teams and occasionally players admit failed college tests during combine interviews.

When Barnhart asked Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity if there should be a uniform testing policy across the NCAA, or at least within the same conference, McGarity said no, and added that testing policies should be left up to the institution. Thus with many players having no fear of testing or the repercussions of testing, the use of marijuana among college football players, already possibly extremely large, could continue to grow, and cause ripples in the pros despite NFL teams possessing a more laid back approach to the drug.

That's because the NFL's drug testing policies, while having some gaps, is still formidable. In the NFL, during the season, players are picked randomly to test for illicit drugs. If the NFL has probable cause, rookies can be put into the drug program immediately upon signing with a team, where chances of getting caught become even higher.

The real issue is use on campus is not just the increasing use but what team officials think is the potential double whammy of more pot smoking and more failed drug tests once those players enter the league.

Both might become the new normal in the NFL.

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