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Weeding out old rules

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Now that the smoke has cleared from the first ever Pot Bowl between two NFL teams from states where it's legal to buy marijuana, I'm wondering which league is finally going to stand for common sense and take weed off its banned substances list.

According to a recent CNN poll, support for legalized marijuana has steadily soared over the past quarter-century -- from 16 percent in 1987 to 26 percent in 1996, 34 percent in 2002 and 43 percent two years ago. In CNN's latest poll, two-thirds of the respondents aged 18 to 34 say it should be legal. I haven't seen any polls of professional athletes, but since most pro jocks fall into that demographic, you have to figure their approval rates are the same or higher.

Why?

Because even though pro athletes are getting more militant about going after PED cheats in their midst, they see pot as the little herb that can. HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" estimated in January that half of all NFL players smoke a little to manage pain and anxiety.

The benefits regarding stress relief continue to be explored. In a study of post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers at Israel's University of Haifa gave small doses of cannabinoids to rats within two, 24 and 48 hours of an extremely stressful event. They found that the rats that were dosed within two and 24 hours of the stress had no lasting symptoms from the event, while the others demonstrated an exaggerated startle response.

Then there are pot's anti-inflammatory properties. Studies show that once cannabis hits rats' brains, it triggers the production of new cells and initiates repair of old ones.

The science is still evolving. But with 11 of 32 NFL teams playing in states where some pot use is legal, and nine more states considering legislation for medical marijuana, it's getting harder for the NFL to defend a ban that reminds us of its worst we-know-what's-good-for-you mentality. The league is still trying to settle a class action lawsuit that, at its heart, is about what it chose to tell players about their own concussions over decades.

What do the NFL's medical gurus think about pot? "Our experts right now are not indicating that we should change our policy in any way," commissioner Roger Goodell said.

A lobbying group called the Marijuana Policy Project forced the issue by buying billboards outside MetLife Stadium in New Jersey that asked passersby, "Why does the league punish us for making the safer choice?" But the better question may be how far the NFL and other leagues are willing to go to let players take more control of their own health issues.

The NBA deals with the issue by trying really, really hard not to look at it. Players get a max of four tests in season unless there is suspicion, and pot positives don't become public until a third offense, at which time a player gets a five-game suspension.

Unless you're Michael Beasley, that's worked out pretty much for everyone. But it's also not the most forthright way to tackle a public health issue, and it remains to be seen whether David Stern's successor, Adam Silver, has any desire to make legalization one of his early defining stands as NBA commissioner.

MLB, which is being sued by A-Rod for its aggressive prosecution of PED use in the Biogenesis case, is even more forgiving when it comes to what's known as performance-minimizing drugs, or PMDs. Although MLB continues to classify pot as a drug of abuse, there hasn't been an announced punishment of a player on a 40-man roster for smoking pot in a decade.

But Joshua Kusnick, an agent who represents a pitcher who uses marijuana to treat his epilepsy, showed the limits of the "don't ask, don't tell" approach when Kusnick offered this complaint to the Denver Post: "I've been told by multiple doctors that they are furious at the way the rules are set up because they have an inability to prescribe their treatment. The medical profession is hampered by the [joint drug agreement], and that's horrible."

Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, argues that it's a false choice to even make a distinction between medical and recreational pot. As he puts it: "Both are equally valid, and have the same answer to the question of whether they should be allowed, which is yes." The NHL doesn't punish players for recreational drug use, and as Tvert points out: "It's not like players are zombies."

No one is going to confuse Goodell with the kind of guy who vacations at Burning Man in Nevada. Long term, he said that he'd keep an open mind about studying medical marijuana, promising it's "something that we would never take off the table." But short term, he's showing no signs that he's eager to open up his league's drug-testing agreement to reduce its penalties for pot; a second violation still can net a four-game suspension.

So it's up the players' association to push back, maybe getting a little love in exchange for its agreeableness on tougher HGH testing. Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner had to stay home and miss the Super Bowl on Sunday because he tripped a test for pot this season after failing one as a rookie in 2005. "If marijuana is legal in some states, I don't understand how an employer has the right to control what an employee does after working hours," his agent, Peter Schaffer, told The Associated Press. "It's just not right."

With advocates for legalization riding high in the polls, it's time to clear the smoke.