What's really driving the proposed NFL pot policy change?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This proposal could mean a reduction in marijuana testing and suspensions while giving Commissioner Roger Goodell unilateral authority to hear future appeals on HGH. It's a great deal for the league's PR and a really bad deal for the NFLPA.

In a rare moment of progressive policy-making, the NFL is considering increasing the THC threshold necessary for positive marijuana tests. The new testing policy "will significantly increase the threshold for a positive marijuana test and reduce the punishments for violations involving that drug" in exchange for league-wide Human Growth Hormone (HGH) testing, according to a report from ESPN's Dan Graziano. His source points out that "the World Anti-Doping Agency has a higher threshold for a positive test than the NFL currently does."

Josh Gordon could miss the entire 2014-15 season because of another failed drug screening due to marijuana/Photo credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

It will be interesting to hear what the NFL means by a "significant increase" in the threshold for a positive marijuana test. It sounds like they are considering something that is more in line with the higher limits that the Olympics use for their THC tests, a perfectly sane thing that they probably should have been doing all along. On closer inspection, that wouldn't be that significant of an increase. The Olympics aren't exactly known to have the most progressive drug policy.

According to the NFLPA, the current THC level necessary for a positive test is 15 ng/mL. A quick look at the WADA thresholds shows that their decision limit for a positive THC test is only 19 ng/mL.

To put that into perspective, a "chronic" (get it?) marijuana user could test positive for pot for up to approximately 25 days under the current NFL policy. That same user might only test positive for only 21 days past his last use using the "relaxed" WADA threshold. It might look good in the press, but this increased leniency really wouldn't mean much at all.

The fact that the NFL has more stringent marijuana testing policies than the Olympics is curious to begin with, but even the WADA has stricter guidelines than most private businesses. Most tests in the United States have a threshold of 50 ng/mL, which translates to approximately seven days after use for heaviest smokers.

The NFL is selling the sizzle not the steak to its current athletes. If a player hears that the league is considering increasing the threshold for pot, they might put pressure on the NFLPA to get it done. Relaxing regulations for pot is a sexy issue for many 20-somethings with disposable income. The league realizes this, and they're using it to push through their real hope which is unilateral punishment for positive HGH tests.

Such is life negotiating against a behemoth.

It might look good in the press, but this increased leniency really wouldn't mean much at all.

The NFL has done a great job in anchoring their position with a line in the sand on small things like pot. All they have to do is agree to change from an antiquated policy into one that’s merely not-insane to look like they’re making compromises. In exchange for this good faith negotiation they get to demand reciprocation on a real issue, like HGH. Now that the NFLPA has proven that they’re no longer the pushover union of the 1980s and 1990s, don’t ever expect the league to make a unilateral concession on any policy. Everything is a bargaining chip, and HGH is a big one.

As of now, the NFL does not test for HGH. There have been ongoing negotiations between the league and the NFLPA, but they reached a stalemate on the issue of oversight. Commissioner Roger Goodell wants to have final say over the arbitration and appeals process, even for players who are caught in a non-analytical positive situation where a player is caught either in possession of (or is conspiring to take delivery of) a Performance-Enhancing Drug (PED without actually ever testing positive for the drug. The players union wants an independent arbitrator to oversee cases such as these. Goodell wants to be "judge, jury, and executioner," according to NFLPA president Eric Winston.

The Union’s skepticism might be well-placed. Look at the lengths that Major League Baseball went to in exposing Alex Rodriguez's dealing with PEDs. MLB has an independent arbitration process and without that, baseball would have gotten away with countless ethical and legal violations in their pursuit of A-Rod. It’s not a stretch to imagine the long arm of the NFL security apparatus being just as aggressive, if not more so, pursuing evidence against their own players. It’s also easy to see how the league would save a lot of effort and cost by handling the appeals in-house and avoiding a drawn-out third party arbitration process.

The question now for the NFLPA is whether they think it’s more important to reduce suspensions for the already-silly infringement of smoking pot or to risk more stigmatizing punishments for HGH. On one hand they have a duty to protect their members from losing playing time and money for something as trivial as marijuana. On the other hand they have to try and maintain a position of strength against the already formidable league office while ensuring a level playing field for its current and future members.

No one really knows how many NFL players are using HGH; one anonymous player has estimated that the number could be as high as 15 athletes per team. If that number is close to being accurate, the players union needs to be very judicious in how the testing is set up. A short-term victory on marijuana testing might end up being a huge loss for the NFLPA in the long run.

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