Jokingly dubbed Smoke-a-Bowl, Bud Bowl, Stoner Bowl, this year’s Super Bowl has become a high-stakes opportunity for marijuana legalization advocates to fix some misconceptions Americans have about marijuana, since both teams are from states where the substance is legal for recreational use.
On Tuesday, five billboards advocating for the NFL to allow players to legally use medical marijuana were mounted around MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, where the Super Bowl is scheduled to be played this Sunday, Feb. 2.
Paid for by the Marijuana Policy Project, a marijuana legalization advocacy group, two of the ads feature images of football players who ask, if marijuana is less harmful to our bodies than alcohol, why does the league punish us for making the safer choice?
“Marijuana is less toxic, less addictive and less harmful to the body than alcohol,” said Mason Tvert, MPP Director of Communications. “Why would the NFL want to steer its players toward drinking and away from making the safer choice to use marijuana instead?
Decorated in color schemes that reflect the colors of the teams playing in the Super Bowl — the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos — two of the ads also highlight the relative safety of marijuana not only compared to alcohol, but to the game of football itself.
“If it is okay for athletes to douse each other with champagne in front of the cameras, it should be okay for them to use marijuana privately in their homes,” Tvert said.
One ad features an unconscious man holding a bottle of alcohol lying on the ground next to an injured football player, accompanied by the text: “Marijuana: Safer than alcohol … and football.”
The other features a mug of beer, a cracked football helmet, and a marijuana leaf below the words “Beer,” “Football,” and “Safer,” respectively.
“Taking a big hit of marijuana poses less potential harm than taking a big hit from an NFL linebacker or a big shot of tequila,” Tvert said. “Whether it’s a concussion or a hangover, it’s a sign that you’ve done more harm to your brain than marijuana could ever do.”
The fifth billboard resembles a scoreboard and shows the number of marijuana arrests in the U.S. compared to the total attendance of the last 10 Super Bowls combined. While the FBI reports that there were some 749,824 arrests for marijuana-related offenses in 2012 alone, SportingCharts.com estimated that 751,203 people have attended the Super Bowl in the past decade.
In other words, in 2012 the number of people arrested for marijuana-related offenses was almost equal to the number of people who have attended a Super Bowl in the past 10 years.
Call for reform in the NFL
In addition to the public display of the billboards, MPP delivered a petition to NFL executives on Wednesday morning in New York City, asking for the league to stop punishing players for using marijuana.
MPP argued that since the Justice Department has allowed states to legalize the substance for adults and medicinal use, the NFL should not continue to punish players for using a substance that is less harmful than alcohol.
Currently, a drug test that comes back positive for marijuana results in a four-game suspension for a first-time offense. While the NFL doesn’t conduct year-round tests for street drugs, which include marijuana, players who have tested positive before are tested more often.
“The league would never punish a player simply for having a beer or cocktail, so why does it levy severe penalties against them for using a substance that is less toxic, less addictive, and less likely to contribute to violence,” the petition asks.
The petition, which has received more than 12,000 signatures, has also received support from other marijuana advocacy groups such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which says “The NFL would be wise to be more open to marijuana use among players.”
“The NFL’s harsh marijuana penalties do nothing to promote the health and safety of the players,” the petition said. “If anything, they put them in danger by steering them toward using alcohol and away from making the safer choice to use marijuana instead.”
Whether the NFL will consider allowing players remains to be seen. But based on comments made by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at a “Head Health Challenge” panel last week, it doesn’t appear the NFL will jump on the legalization bandwagon anytime soon.
“We will follow medicine, and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that,” Goodell said.
He emphasized that if studies prove marijuana helps the brain heal after head trauma, the league will consider allowing marijuana use, but added that currently, the NFL’s medical experts do not see a medicinal value in the substance.
While NFL players who use marijuana may be a minority in the eyes of the public, an “unscientific survey” of 48 current and former players, front office executives, head and assistant coaches, agents, medical professionals and marketing professional who either played in the NFL or worked closely with players, estimated that more than half of all players smoke marijuana regularly.
A safer choice
In response to the NFL’s reluctant response, Tvert said “Most Americans think marijuana should be legal, and laws around the country are beginning to reflect that. The NFL needs to catch up with the times,” he adds. “It is no longer necessary or popular to punish adults simply for using marijuana.”
“The unfortunate irony is that, despite the legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado, the NFL continues to ban its use among players, although it is not a performance enhancing drug,” NORML said.
“Both teams have each lost key players this season to marijuana-related suspensions. The Denver Broncos Von Miller, 2011 NFL defensive rookie of the year, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond, and Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner have all received suspensions for failing drug tests.”
“Its value as a safer treatment than opiates for pain resulting from the brutality of the game, must be acknowledged. With concerns over repeat concussions and the resulting traumatic brain injury to players like Junior Seau, the league should be particularly interested in marijuana’s potential to prevent long-term damage associated with brain injuries.”
Though NORML says some players may use marijuana for its medicinal benefits, and others recreationally as a way to unwind, like how some might drink a beer or a martini, the advocacy group pointed out that “cannabis use doesn’t have the same risks associated with mixing prescription drugs, particularly painkillers, and alcohol.”
While the NFL may not agree that marijuana legalization in the league would be a good thing, not all of the coaches and players agree. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll for instance, said that the NFL should do what’s best for players, regardless of any stigmas that may be attached to the drug.
“We have to continue to explore and compete to find ways that are going to make our game a better game and take care of our players in the best way possible,” Carroll said. “The fact that it’s in the world of medicine is obviously something the commissioner realizes and him making the expression that we need to follow the information and the research, absolutely, I’m in support of.
“Regardless of what other stigmas may be involved, I think we have to do this because the world of medicine is trying to do the exact same thing and figure it out, and they’re coming to some conclusions. I can only speak for our coaches, and we haven’t debated the thought yet.”
Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson agrees the NFL should consider allowing players to use marijuana if it can help them mentally and physically. Robinson’s acceptance of marijuana use likely stems from the fact that the NFL player missed the start of the current football season because a legal painkiller he had been prescribed by team doctors was causing his liver and kidneys to fail.
“I think anything that can make our job a little easier without sacrificing our health at the same time is good for the league; it’s good for players,” Robinson said. “I’m all for alternative forms of recovery and all those types of things — hyperbaric chambers, o-zoning, whatever it may be. So, I’m all for it. Whatever can help the player, I’m for.”
The medicinal powers of marijuana may be tempting for some players to try before the league allows its use, but others, such as Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, say they will stay away from marijuana so long as it’s illegal and against the rules.
“I think with something like that, it may be helpful, but it is also something that can be abused,” Knighton said. “So I think that’s why it’s banned, and that’s why it’s on the list, because it can be abused, and it can backfire. It’s a touchy subject, but whatever is best, they’ll figure it out. Until then, I’m going to follow the rules.”