Skirting discipline is easy in a sports world that can’t embrace weed, but also won’t really crack down on it.
In 2004, a college football player got wind that he’d be tested for cannabis the next day. The player and his roommate drove to a head shop and bought a detox drink that they figured would help clear his system.
The player drank an entire bottle, plus two gallons of water. He peed all of it out, and when he submitted his urine the next day, it came up clean. (This was in spite of his school testing for hydration levels and purporting to fail anyone who was too hydrated.) He continued playing, having used the same lo-fi trick any high schooler would think of.
Colleges and all major pro leagues make their players submit to drug tests of varying types. Weed is a banned substance in most of those leagues, and there’s no reason to think athletes are smoking or consuming it any less than the rest of us (which is to say, quite a lot). In that light, sports leagues’ tests for cannabis can look somewhat like a charade: After speaking with several current and former athletes, it became clear that many of them weren’t really scared of getting caught for cannabis use, because they believed the people who mandate the testing didn’t really want to catch them.
This isn’t Mission Impossible.
If you’re a male athlete, a fake penis filled with synthetic urine is one approach. What improbably worked for Vincent Chase in the last, terrible season of Entourage has also worked to beat tests mandated by sports’ governing bodies.
We’ll never get a full count of how many athletes have strapped one on to pee one out, but the number is well above zero. Mike Tyson is among the most famous athletes to admit to using the ploy, having filled a fake member with clean urine to beat drug testing “really effectively.”
(The makers of The Whizzinator, the country’s preeminent non-sex-toy fake penis, insist that their product isn’t meant for this purpose. “We do not endorse or promote our product for any testing purposes, please follow all state and federal laws while using ALS products,” a customer service rep wrote to me when I asked about their product.)
A simpler approach is just to drink enough water to fill up an aquarium tank and hope you pee out something that’s pure enough for fish to survive in it. Whether other things work is a point of scientific contention, if not outright derision, but players have tried plenty.
“Salt pills, multivitamin, and water,” a former D1 soccer player tells SB Nation. “Beat three NCAA tests and one MLS preseason.”
None of this is complicated.
The major pro leagues have varying policies on weed, but all of them make it easy enough for players to avoid any trouble.
In a suggestion that it might have a sense of humor, the NFL’s drug-testing period begins in the spring, often around or exactly on April 20. It continues through Aug. 9, just after most teams have started training camp. Players get tested for recreational drugs just once, though they can get tested for PEDs time and time again throughout the year. Weed is punished with relative lenience.
“I think it’s more of a goal for them to catch people using performance-enhancing drugs than it was to test for marijuana,” says former running back Reuben Droughns, who played for five teams between 2000 and 2008. “That speaks to the testing. I got tested for steroids, because of the way my name popped up on a list, probably about nine times a season.”
A first weed-positive test result leads to a referral to a program, a second to a fine, a third to a bigger fine, a fourth to a four-game suspension, a fifth to a 10-game suspension, and a sixth (and thereafter) to a one-year “banishment” from the league. Josh Gordon is the most famous player to go through all of these steps. Most players don’t ever get beyond a four-gamer.
Droughns says he partook in cannabis, both as a player and after his career was over. He says he never tested positive, because he stopped smoking in March and resumed after he’d made a team out of camp.
The NBA’s policy is similar. A first weed-positive result gets a player referred to a treatment program. A second is a $25,000 fine. A third is a five-game suspension. A fourth is a 10-gamer, a fifth is a 15-gamer, and a sixth is a 20-gamer, and so on. Players get suspended quicker than in the NFL, but it’s harder for them to get kicked out of the sport.
Major League Baseball lists cannabis as a drug of abuse, alongside cocaine, opiates, MDMA, LSD, and a handful of other Schedule I and Schedule II drugs. Minor leaguers (who don’t have a union) can get heavy suspensions for weed, but there’s nothing in MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program that says big leaguers can get suspended for it.
The NHL has no-notice testing for teams twice per season — once during training camp and once in the regular season — and assorted other testing throughout the year. The league tests for cannabis, but it’s not on the prohibited substances list the league keeps in consultation with its players union. The league’s collective bargaining agreement only allows the testing lab to notify the league if a player has “dangerously high” levels of a recreational drug in his system. Hockey is up front about not wanting to punish players for it, and the league hasn’t. It doesn’t suspend or fine players for using cannabis.
If you’re committed enough, you can try to scam a test using one of the techniques above. But if you’re not, no sport makes it that difficult to avoid punishment.
If these tests are so easy to beat, why are leagues still testing?
“Most big companies, most big businesses, you know, most big entities are risk-averse,” says Michael Correia, the government relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group that represents cannabis businesses. “And it’s pretty straightforward: It’s illegal at the federal level. It says it. There is no ifs, ands, or buts. And so I think a lot of people, businesses, leagues, their counsels are saying, ‘This is illegal at the federal level. Let’s just play it safe.’ And so even though players may be in states where it’s legal and teams may be in states where it’s legal, I think just across the board, people are risk-averse.”
Despite rapidly changing public opinions about cannabis, the current political climate is likely to pause any further liberalization in how leagues approach the substance. The current attorney general of the United States has said (he claims jokingly) that in the 1980s, he thought the Ku Klux Klan was, “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” He has said more recently that “good people” don’t use the drug. Jeff Sessions’ ideological bluster has already turned into a directive for heightened federal enforcement, targeted at businesses and users in states that have legalized it.
It’s hard to see how leagues could fall into the government’s crosshairs if they removed cannabis from prohibited-substance lists and stopped testing for it altogether. If a worker at any other job gets into weed-related trouble, the cops don’t bust down his boss’ door. But heightened risk aversion still exists, and leagues have appearances to keep up anyway.
“I think it’s just because of the PR,” Droughns, the former running back, says. “Obviously, it’s the National Football League. Obviously, you have a standard to keep, and you’re in the public eye. There’s still kind of that stigma of, ‘Smoking marijuana is a bad thing.’ Reefer Madness and stuff like that.”
Leagues have to exist in a sweet spot. They inhabit the same world as the rest of us, where people are less and less scared of weed than they used to be. But plenty of (mostly old) people still don’t like it, among them legions of sports fans, federal lawmakers up to President Donald Trump, and the country’s top law enforcement officer in Sessions.
For some athletes, this is a problem, especially because they believe that many pro sports leagues, including the NFL, have a history of pushing powerful and addictive painkillers on players.
“We know teams [in] the NFL would have zero problem giving their players opioids, and any painkillers, they take ‘em like Pez. And that’s an issue,” Correia says.