Reefer madness: Why more jocks turn to marijuana

The drug that showed up in Tara Zwink’s urine in January earned her a two-year ban from international snowboarding competition.

After finishing seventh in the women’s halfpipe at the U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix in Breckenridge, Colo., Zwink was picked for a random drug test and – wham – she got the same penalty she would have for steroids, amphetamines or other drugs that make athletes bigger, faster, stronger.

But Zwink, a 30-year-old from Government Camp, Ore., did not test positive for steroids or speed. The drug that will keep Zwink from participating in competitions sanctioned by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association is marijuana.

Forty-seven percent of Americans have smoked pot, according to a recent Time/CNN poll, up from 31 percent in 1983; 34 percent favor legalization, up from 18 percent in 1986; 80 percent say adults should be able to use marijuana for medical purposes and nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use.

But as Americans grow more tolerant of marijuana, the sports world is heading in the opposite direction.

Athletes caught smoking pot are not simply petty offenders, as the laws in most states define them. They are also disgraced role models, marketing liabilities and now, according to a burgeoning group of anti-doping advocates, they’re cheaters as well. Many experts believe marijuana can enhance performance and are pushing to extend pot testing to all sports, not just the handful that screen for it now.

Last weekend in Lausanne, Switzerland, physicians affiliated with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) were compiling a standardized banned list for the 2004 Olympics, and are hotly debating whether all Olympians should be tested for pot.

WADA President Dick Pound advocates taking the testing issue even further, encouraging the U.S. pro leagues, especially those that send athletes to the Olympics, to follow his agency’s guidelines.

There is no question in the mind of Larry Bowers, the senior managing director of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, that marijuana can enhance performance by soothing nerves and giving some athletes an edge before they compete.

“One of the affects of marijuana is that it removes inhibitions,” says Bowers. “It makes (athletes) not afraid of going down a 45-degree hill doing triple flips.”

Steven Ungerleider, an Oregon psychologist who has advised college, pro and Olympic teams on drug issues, says gymnasts, divers, football players and basketball players have told him they smoke before they play. “They say it takes the edge off, so they can focus on the game,” Ungerleider says.

But Ross Rebagliati, the Canadian snowboarder whose gold medal was briefly yanked after he tested positive during the 1998 Nagano Olympics, says they are blowing smoke. “If you’re being watched by the international media and millions of viewers around the world,” Rebagliati says, “marijuana won’t make you relax. It will make you feel anxious and paranoid.”

Marijuana has long been a part of competitive sports, hailed by its users as a mellow alternative to other drugs, including alcohol. From 1989 to 2001, the NCAA found its athletes used ever-decreasing amounts of alcohol, cocaine, steroids, amphetamines, even cigarettes. But marijuana use stayed steady, even though athletes busted for marijuana face penalties far beyond what the law allows. (In New York, for instance, possession of 25 grams or less of pot gets you a $100 fine and no jail, while a first-offense DUI calls for a fine of between $300-$500, or 15 days in a county jail, and in New York City, forfeiture of the vehicle.) Their teams pay a price, too, which is why the men and women who write checks in professional sports want drugs out of it.

A New York Daily News review of court and arrest records found an average of 30 college and professional athletes arrested for marijuana possession or distribution for each of the past three years.

“It’s huge and goes well beyond the cost of the tickets and the fines,” says Dean Bonham, a sports marketing consultant and former president of the Denver Nuggets, of marijuana in sports. “It goes to fan attitudes, it affects ticket sales and merchandising and concessions and advertising.”

So what have more testing, more counseling and more awareness about marijuana brought to sports? “Smarter users,” says former NBA player and coach John Lucas. “Once they pass the test, they do whatever they do.”

Unless the athlete is former Dallas Cowboy Nate Newton, lugging 213 pounds of pot in the back of his van, the legal cost of a minor marijuana bust is negligible.

Newton was sentenced to five years in Louisiana for trafficking, but the average athlete who is arrested for possessing a small amount is usually hit with a fine of up to $1,000 and no jail time.

When Damon Stoudamire and Rasheed Wallace did their best Cheech & Chong impersonation, getting arrested for pot possession last year in Stoudamire’s yellow Hummer, the team was thrown into turmoil and general manager Bob Whitsitt apologized to fans on behalf of owner Paul Allen.

“This is embarrassing, it’s disappointing, it’s frustrating,” said Whitsitt. “I’m sure we’ve got a lot of angry fans.”

“It’s a real public relations problem,” says sports marketing consultant Marc Ganis. “My God, how many Letterman jokes were there about the Mets after that? It also tends to exacerbate pre-existing perceptions. If the Mets were viewed as an underachieving team, you start to wonder, does it stem from a lack of discipline? For a team it sends a terrible message.”

Reactions also seem to depend on the nature of the sport involved. Snowboarder Rebagliati became more famous after his positive test, but baseball, basketball, football and hockey all have close ties with traditional, conservative corporations, including beer companies.

Baseball has three stadiums – Miller Park, Busch Stadium and Coors Field – named for those companies. Marijuana’s counter-culture image does not appeal to the blue chips. The bottom line, Bonham says, is that marijuana is illegal.

“Corporate America is about selling products and services to the masses,” he says. “Breaking the law in any form is inconsistent with that. I think the use of marijuana is a huge risk for athletes who have any interest at all in endorsement opportunities.”