Why Chandler Jones' "Mistake" Shows That the NFL Should Allow Medical Marijuana

January 19, 2016 - By Kevin Franciotti

New England Patriots defensive lineman Chandler Jones apologized on Thursday for ‘a pretty stupid mistake’ related to his use of “synthetic marijuana,” but what was the mistake?

Jones had a bad reaction to a synthetic cannabinoid product, more commonly known as “synthetic marijuana.”  If he actually intended to use marijuana, he wouldn’t be the first person to confuse a synthetic cannabinoid product as the real thing.  His experience was likely frightening, since synthetic cannabinoids cause different, unpleasantly intense effects in comparison to plant-based marijuana – a mistake indeed.

Few would choose this experience, but those at risk of getting drug tested, as Jones is, often seek out synthetic cannabinoids since they don’t show up on tests.  In that case, Jones (and other cynics) may feel his mistake was getting caught.  But with an estimated 50-60% of NFL players regularly using marijuana, often for pain relief, Jones would certainly not be the only NFL player in this situation.

Authorities outside of the NFL are also struggling to find a solution, with states across the country looking for ways to address the problems associated with use of synthetic cannabinoids. In what seems like a ‘whack-a-mole’-style approach, legislation and state public health regulations seek to identify and ban new substances that may be contained in synthetic cannabinoid products.

Unfortunately, they are missing the point.  Prohibition itself is behind many of the problems. In 2014, the sale of “synthetic marijuana” products was banned in Massachusetts. Whenever the sale of drugs are banned, they enter the underground market.

With “synthetic marijuana” different batches of synthetic cannabinoid blends may be used and sprayed onto inert plant material unevenly.  This means that effects and strengths may differ, leading to unpredictable outcomes. Because of prohibition, adverse reactions to synthetic cannabinoid products are more numerous than they would be if these products were regulated.

However, the market for these products would likely lessen if we first reconsider our policies about marijuana. More than twenty states have passed medical marijuana laws, including Massachusetts, and chronic pain is often a major reason patients seek out an alternative to opiate-based painkillers like Oxycontin.

For Jones and other NFL players, pain is a natural consequence of a career in professional football, and with pressure to remain in the game week after week, a legal and approved access to medical marijuana for pain treatment should be available so that players do not have to resort to the illicit market.

Jones’s experience shows that the NFL, just like broader society, must deal straightforwardly with marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids.  If the NFL wants to avoid incidents like this in the future, Commissioner Roger Goodell should reconsider the policy on medical marijuana.  It would be a mistake not to.

Kevin Franciotti is a Program Associate at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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