Synthetic marijuana is illegal in nearly every state and under federal law, regulations that didn’t exist just six years ago before the explosion in the popularity of the dangerous psychoactive chemicals.
But two years after its players were first linked to synthetic marijuana, the NFL hasn’t added it to its list of banned substances. That means while drugs of abuse like cocaine, heroin and even traditional marijuana are tested for by the league, screenings for synthetic marijuana aren’t a typical part of the NFL’s testing protocols.
“As long as people are willing to do stupid things to their bodies, we are going to have problems with these kinds of drugs,” DEA spokesman Lawrence Payne told USA TODAY Sports. “This is not something you can legislate or arrest your way out of to solve.” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday that "synthetic marijuana falls within the purview of the policy” since the substances are illegal drugs. “Synthetic marijuana is not currently part of the basic testing panel, but the medical advisors have the discretion to add it to an individual’s testing panel as appropriate,” McCarthy said. That “discretion” occurs after a player is already in the league’s drug program via a previous violation, according to the joint drug agreement between the NFL and NFL Players Association.
Messages left for the NFL Players Assocation on Wednesday and Thursday by USA TODAY Sports were not returned.
Already in 2016, two more NFL players were linked to synthetic cannabinoids, which are often herbs doused with chemicals imported from overseas. Once smoked, the chemicals bind to the same receptor in the brain as the active ingredient in traditional marijuana (THC), although at much higher doses. Use of synthetic cannabinoids can lead to hallucinations, seizures and even death. Over a five-month span last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 15 reported deaths from the use of the drug.
“Referring to these drugs as synthetic marijuana gives people the false sense of safety,” Payne said. “The use of these drugs can have disastrous consequences and it’s not just a problem here in the U.S. This is an issue around the globe.”
While authorities have cracked down on the head shops and gas stations that sell the drugs under names like “Mr. Happy,” “Spice” and “Funky Monkey,” synthetic marijuana can be found fairly easily on the Internet.
Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones sought medical attention on Jan. 10 and The Boston Globe reported Jones used synthetic marijuana. Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman told police that he had taken synthetic marijuana before his hit-and-run accident in October, according to a police report released on Monday.
While the drugs aren’t on the banned list under the league’s substance abuse policy, a program run jointly with the NFLPA, a player can still be suspended is if he’s charged with possessing, using or trafficking the chemicals. That’s what happened to Bills defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, who was suspended for the first game of the 2015 season. He was arrested in May 2014 for felony possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia in Alabama, although he pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Kellen Winslow, then a tight end with the New York Jets, was arrested in New Jersey in November 2013 for possession of synthetic pot.
A.J. Perez - USA Today/Jan. 28, 2016