On Sunday, New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones walked from his nearby home to the Foxborough, MA police station to allegedly seek help for a “bad reaction” to synthetic marijuana. Foxbourogh Police released a report detailing the incident:
It was quite evident that Mr. Jones was desperately seeking our assistance, and he had certainly not committed any crimes — nor had he violated any laws or town bylaws. … Without any warning or provocation, this man got down on his knees, he interlocked his fingers, and he placed his hands tightly against the back of his head. … For a quick second or two, this man held this position – it was like this man was trying to surrender (he was literally ‘as stiff as a board’/he was both upright and rigid)… Mr. Jones did not resist, nor was he ever argumentative or confrontational.
Jones was admitted to Norwood Hospital later that day and was back at the Patriots’ facility lifting weights by 6:30 a.m. Monday morning. Yesterday, Jones admitted that he “made a pretty stupid mistake this weekend.”
So why all of the fuss? In addition to the obvious concern for Jones’ safety (more on the serious dangers of synthetic marijuana below), there is the question of whether anything illegal took place and whether Jones could be subject to a suspension by the NFL for Saturday’s divisional playoff game against the Chiefs and the remainder of the playoffs.
Athletes’ use of Synthetic Marijuana
The name “synthetic marijuana” is somewhat misleading because there is no marijuana in the drug. Rather, the chemical (which can be smoked or inhaled) contain in cannabinoids, which are related to chemicals found in the marijuana plant.
The substance may actually affect the brain more than marijuana and lead to unpredictable and dangerous side effects. Because the chemical composition of many synthetic marijuana products is unknown and may change from batch to batch, these products are likely to contain substances that cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect. Eric Altieri, communication director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law, analogies synthetic marijuana to “a cousin [of] alcohol’s bathtub gin. It’s forcing people to choose a much more dangerous product. Most people who use it prefer to choose natural marijuana.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists the following symptoms of synthetic marijuana:
- altered perception—awareness of surrounding objects and conditions
- symptoms of psychosis—delusional or disordered thinking detached from reality
- extreme anxiety
- paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
- hallucinations—sensations and images that seem real though they are not
- rapid heart rate
- violent behavior
- suicidal thoughts
Synthetic Marijuana can also be addictive and the symptoms can be at times life threatening. Still don’t believe the dangers? Watch some of these videos.
The only other known case of synthetic marijuana in the NFL took place on November 17, 2013, when tight end Kellen Winslow was arrested for possession of a controlled substance – synthetic marijuana.
Winslow was caught after a witness saw him “pleasuring himself” in a black Cadillac Escalade in the parking lot of a Target. After police officers inquired about the “Funky Monkey” and “Mr. Happy” wrappers strewn around his car, Winslow allegedly told officers the NFL does not drug test for the substance and he smokes it at his home. The NFL did not suspend Winslow.
In December, Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, while allegedly using synthetic marijuana, became paranoid and was convinced that someone was chasing him when he jumped through his hotel room’s window and fell more than 15 feet to the ground.
His brother, Denzel, also on the Ole Miss football team, was allegedly hospitalized for synthetic marijuana use after he was found near the edge of the roof of his off-campus townhouse, wrapped in a blanket, terrified that someone was after him.
So why do athletes (and others) risk using synthetic marijuana? For one, it doesn’t show up on drug tests. It is also easier to obtain in some states, is less expensive than marijuana, and is marketed as a “safe alternative” to pot (even though many synthetic marijuana products are labeled “not for human consumption”).
The NFL’s Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse
Under the NFL’s substance abuse policy, synthetic marijuana is not listed as a banned substance. However, the policy states that “illegal use [or] possession” of substances “including but not limited to” those on the list (marijuana is listed) are banned. Thus, under a broad reading of the policy, the NFL has wide latitude to determine what substances, in addition to those listed, are banned.
As noted above, Kellen Winslow was not disciplined for his arrest for synthetic marijuana. At that time, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith stated:
Our drug policy is one that has strict and well-defined drugs that are banned. If they are not on the list, they can’t serve as the basis for discipline. If the league or NFLPA wants to make additions or medications to that drug policy, the process for that is collective bargaining, as brutal, ugly and messy and imperfect as it is.
While that bodes well for Jones, it is important to note that the NFL’s current substance abuse policy was not in effect at the time of Winslow’s arrest.
One of the most alarming aspects of all of this is that the NFL lists marijuana, but not the more dangerous synthetic marijuana, as a banned substance.
But even if the NFL deems synthetic marijuana banned, Jones would still have had to be illegally using or possessing the drug. Jones has not been charged and it does not appear that he will be (according to police documents, Jones had not “violated any laws or town bylaws”).
There is an additional barrier to a Jones suspension. Because participants of the NFL’s substance abuse program are confidential, it is unknown whether Jones is currently in the program. However, if he is not in the program, a first violation (and as noted above, it is not clear whether this is one) would not result in a suspension. If he is already in Stage One the program, he still would not be suspended. But if he is already in Stage Two of the program, he could be subject to a four or six game suspension.
One of the most alarming aspects of all of this is that the NFL lists marijuana, but not the more dangerous synthetic marijuana, as a banned substance. Such a policy incentivizes players to use a more dangerous drug, a drug that the league knows that players have been using for years. And the NFL cannot hide behind the legal/illegal divide, as both substances are legal in some states and illegal in others.
There is no doubt that the NFL is currently evaluating the facts of this case to determine whether any discipline is appropriate and sustainable under the CBA. Will the NFL take a stand on this dangerous substance and attempt to discipline Jones for a substance not explicitly listed as a banned substance? This would ensure an appeal and battle with the NFLPA.
Unless Jones is already in Stage Two of the NFL’s substance abuse program, there are simply no grounds under the CBA for the league to discipline Jones. The NFL’s personal conduct policy has never been extended to and likely does not include drug related offenses (and certainly ones that were not illegal and did not involve an arrest). Moreover, Roger Goodell’s infamous power to discipline players for conduct detrimental to the league (Article 46 of the CBA) has never been used for drug related incidents. And fear not Patriots fans, even if the NFL attempts to suspend Jones, it is too late for him to miss this week’s playoff game (and potentially the entire playoffs) as the appeals process could not be completed in time.
All signs point to Jones being in the clear but in the words of his coach Bill Belicheck when asked about Jones availability this weekend: “We’ll see on Saturday.”