The Perils of Synthetic Weed in the NFL - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Perils of Synthetic Weed in the NFL

The Perils of Synthetic Weed in the NFL

By A.J. Perez

marijuana clone plants that are used to grow medical marijuana are displayed under a light, at The Joint, a medical marijuana cooperative in Seattle. Fewer teens are trying fake marijuana known by such names as K2 and Spice, apparently getting the message that these cheap new drugs are highly dangerous, according to the government's annual survey on drug use. Synthetic marijuana is thought to have appeared in the United States in 2009, and soon after came a spike in emergency room visits, even deaths, as the drug caught on among young people.
SourceTed S. Warren/Corbis


Because if you’re a football fan during the off-season, you probably still want to know what’s going down with your fave players. And it’s some crazy shit.

By A.J. Perez

Over the course of his six-season NFL career, Nate Jackson received a steady course of painkillers and anti-inflammatory meds from doctors. These pharmaceuticals crucially helped keep him on the field despite injuries as a tight end with the Denver Broncos.

But it wasn’t enough. Jackson also self-medicated with marijuana — a substance that is banned by the NFL and was illegal in Colorado at the time. That ban didn’t stop him as he sought relief from both the physical and mental stress of playing pro football.

“You have to fucking escape it somehow,” Jackson told OZY. “What do you want them to use? That’s what you have to figure out. What do you want them putting in their body? Because they’re going to do something.”

Two NFL players — Bills defensive lineman Marcell Dareus and free-agent tight end Kellen Winslow — were arrested by authorities for allegedly possessing it in recent months. Both could be suspended because of the arrest, but not for merely using the so-called synthetic cannabinoids. The NFL doesn’t test for it, even though medical and drug experts tell OZY these synthetic drugs are much more dangerous than typical weed.The NFL’s biggest problem when it comes to marijuana isn’t that its players are smoking up. It’s that they’re smoking the wrong stuff. Football players are lighting up with a dangerous drug known as synthetic cannabis more and more. The drug consists of herbs doused with unknown but harmful chemicals typically sourced from China. Crucially, synthetic marijuana isn’t banned by the NFL, though it’s illegal federally in the U.S. 

Nate without helmet in football Broncos uniform during the day

Nate Jackson

Source Getty

That means their story isn’t a cautionary tale to other players about doing the drug; it’s a reminder not to get caught.

Synthetic weed is easy to get: it’s sold on the Internet, in gas stations and in head shops in packages or bottles labeled with names like “Mr. Happy,” “Spice” and “Funky Monkey.”

“Calling this stuff ‘synthetic marijuana’ doesn’t do it justice,” Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman Rusty Payne told OZY. It’s designed to replicate the high from marijuana — but it floods the cannabis receptors (and potentially other receptors) in the brain.

“These synthetic cannabinoids have the possibility of being 1000 times more potent,” said University of Colorado School of Medicine professor Andrew Monte, who authored a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January on the topic.

Monte, an ER physician, details the results he’s seen: seizures, agitation, aggressiveness and elevated hearts rates that dip to abnormally low levels a few hours after usage.

Although the NFL bans steroids, cocaine and other controlled substances — including the less harmful version of marijuana — neither the league nor the NFL Players Association appears to be in a rush to add synthetic grass to the banned list. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told OZY there “was nothing new to report” on the matter.

Months after the two Super Bowl teams played in the so-called “Marijuana Bowl” (titled because both the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks hailed from states where it’s legal to purchase) there’s been no movement toward letting players light up with synthetic pot’s forerunner, traditional weed.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said before the Super Bowl: “We will continue to follow the medical research.”  

Much of that research marks a changing tide in thinking about marijuana. The drug has gone from a no-no to possibly healthy, and even the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in a major shift in policy commenced a study on the use of cannabis for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Football player, Kellen Winslow Jr.,  holding ball being tackled

New York Jets tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.

“I see that [ban] changing over the next three to five years,” former NFL punter Chris Kluwe says, explaining that as American attitudes change, the NFL’s will, too.

A CBS poll released May 25 found that of 48 percent of the 1,000 Americans surveyed favor making marijuana use legal; in 1979, a CBS News poll found only 27 percent favored legalization.

“The NFL is doing players a disservice by not making marijuana available,” Kluwe said. “I know a lot of guys who took some of these prescription drugs, like Vicodin, and got hooked. Pot doesn’t have these side effects.”The use of harsh narcotic painkillers and other drugs — some of which Jackson told OZY has led to the near complete destruction of his stomach lining — has been the standard way NFL team docs help players manage pain and overcome injuries in the brutal sport. Kluwe said, given the opportunity, many players would opt for pot as a safer, less-addictive alternative.

Monte points out that while marijuana may not be considered something a person can become physically dependent upon, users can become reliant on the drug.

“People can use it habitually and crave it,” Monte said. “In some respects, it is addictive.”

Kluwe says about 50 percent of current NFL players use marijuana in violation of league drug rules. Jackson said that number could shoot up to 70 percent if the league took it off the banned list.

Goodell apparently doesn’t smoke pot and said in January: “I am randomly tested and I’m happy to say I am clean.”

“I think maybe we need to get Goodell high,” Jackson quips. “Maybe we need to get him stoned to change his mind.”  

A.J. Perez is an investigative sports writer at who has worked for USA TODAY, and

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