Stop the NFL's War on Weed

When the Baltimore Ravens face the Cleveland Browns in Week 3 of the NFL season, Ray Rice will be on the field. Josh Gordon will not.
See you next season.

When the Baltimore Ravens face the Cleveland Browns in Week Three of the football season, Ray Rice will be on the field. Josh Gordon will not.

Welcome to "integrity" and "values," brought to you by the National Football League.

The NFL upheld Gordon's yearlong suspension today for violating its substance-abuse policy after testing positive for marijuana, the minimum punishment for a repeat offender.

Meanwhile, the league, the Ravens and their fans have gone out of their way to justify the lenient two-game suspension given to Rice for knocking out his wife and dragging her unconscious body from an elevator. For weeks, we've had to endure countless accounts of what a swell guy Rice is when he isn't beating a woman senseless.

Welcome to the NFL, where pot is worse than assault.

Look, I get it -- the minimum suspension for substance abuse is written into the letter of the league's law, a collectively bargained document in which the players ostensibly had some say. And maybe the wave of justifiable outrage that will hit the league over the disparity between the two suspensions will finally renew calls to institute minimum punishments for domestic violence violations.

But there's another lesson here, too -- which is that the NFL needs to take a serious look at the puritanical, racially tinged "values" enshrined in its drug policy.

As NBC Sports' Mike Florio noted last month, the process of testing athletes can be rather arbitrary:

Urine samples routinely are split into two bottles, the "A" bottle and the "B" bottle. If the "A" bottle generates a positive result, the "B" bottle is tested. Amazingly, the "B" bottle doesn't have to independently show a violation. Instead, the substance abuse policy states that the "B" bottle Test need only show that the substance, revealed in the "A" bottle Test, is evident to the 'limits of detection' to confirm the results of the "A" bottle Test.

In English, close counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and "B" bottles.

ESPN's Bomani Jones also noted the discrepancy between the league's threshold for a positive marijuana test and the World Anti-Doping Agency's: The global sports authority tasked with combating substance abuse and performance-enhancing drugs among athletes is 10 times more lenient than the NFL.

The league appears to be suffering from the Icarus Syndrome. Lest we forget, marijuana is rapidly being decriminalized across the U.S. It's legal for recreational use in two states and for medical use in 21 others and the District of Columbia. Although the U.S. has historically trailed the rest of the developed world's progression on pot with a harsh policy that has had real social and economic consequences, it's finally starting to catch up and realign its priorities.

The same can't be said for the NFL. Perhaps the most criticized aspect of federal drug policy is that it classifies marijuana in the same group as much more dangerous drugs, such as heroin and ecstasy. Similarly, the NFL's substance-abuse policy lists marijuana in the same vein as cocaine, amphetamines, opiates and ecstasy. But while even the Food and Drug Administration is starting to budge on its marijuana classification, the league insists on lumping pot in with the rest.

Never mind that pot might be safer than alcohol, or that athletes might use it to mask the pain of playing, or that the NFL claims that its substance-abuse policy is more treatment-oriented than punitive. Never mind the staggering racial disparities that accompany the enforcement of drug bans. Never mind that Josh Gordon had passed at least 70 drug tests before failing the last one. To the NFL, Ray Rice is still more worthy of redemption.

If the league wants to confront that ugly reality and catch up with the rest of the American public -- not to mention avoid slapping half its players with season-long suspensions -- revisiting its drug policies is a good place to start.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Kavitha A Davidson at

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Timothy Lavin at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.