How Prevalent Is Synthetic Marijuana Usage in Sports?


1. Why is synthetic marijuana in the news?

Patriots linebacker Chandler Jones was hospitalized on Sunday after an adverse reaction to synthetic marijuana, reports Boston Globe columnist Christopher GasperThe details are weird.

Last month, Clay Travis reported that Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche’s fall from a fourth-floor window occurred under the influence of the designer drug. Nkemdiche, who is supposedly slipping down draft boards because of the incident, denied using synthetic drugs.

2. What is synthetic marijuana, anyways?

It’s a man-made drug comprised of chemicals, which, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse are “called cannabinoids because they are related to chemicals found in the marijuana plant.” The governmental reference says research indicates that “some of them bind more strongly than marijuana to the cell receptors affected by THC.”

Per the National Institute of Drug Abuse, effects of the drug include “extreme anxiety, confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, rapid heart rate, vomiting, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, headaches, and depression.”

3. That sounds awful! Why would athletes, or anyone, use this instead of regular weed? And how long has this been going on?

There seems to be the idea that synthetic marijuana doesn’t show up on drug tests, but that’s not totally true. For example, LSU players Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon, and Spencer Ware were suspended for one game in 2011 after testing positive for synthetic weed.

Furthermore, a 2013 ESPN investigation alleged that the 2010 national champion Auburn Tigers were gripped by a synthetic weed “epidemic,” in which 12 players tested positive, though the results were kept confidential. (That piece was panned in the blogosphere.)

In 2014, Kellen Winslow was allegedly in possession of synthetic marijuana during his, um, incident in a Target parking lot.

4. Okay, that doesn’t answer the question. Why would anyone use this?

While the notion that you can’t test positive for it is false, the belief that you won’t is largely accurate. As Deadspin explained in 2011, the standard drug test, which detects marijuana, amphetamines, heroin, opiates and PCP, cost $35 at the time. Conversely, they noted it would cost $300 per player to test for all banned substances, including synthetic weed. “Instead the NCAA leaves it up to individual schools, which have an awful lot of leeway,” wrote Barry Petchesky.

I can’t recall a time an NFL player tested positive for synthetic weed, and am not even sure if the NFL goes looking for it. A league spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment about it. As far as regular marijuana goes, despite what has happened with the Josh Gordons of the world, the NFL is not exactly playing the role of Sherlock Holmes.

“Players not in the substance-abuse program are tested once per year during a window that opens on 4/20 (seriously) and lasts until August,” PFT’s Mike Florio told The Big Lead. “Once tested, a player who passes will not be tested again until the following year. Unless he gets arrested for a marijuana-related offense or a bag of it falls out of his jacket in the presence of a league official, he can’t get caught.”

5. Should the NFL and NCAA be more vigilant?

It’s hard to say definitively. Having never experienced synthetic marijuana for myself, I can’t speak personally for the accuracy of the effects reported by the government. Though two high profile cases have allegedly occurred in football in the last month, and several in the past few years, there is not enough information out there yet to deem this a panic-worthy trend.

However, if synthetic weed is indeed as dangerous as advertised, and if the reason it’s being used is to avoid drug-testing discipline—as opposed to a high that, when it doesn’t cause erratic behavior and/or bodily injury, people find preferable—one sensible solution would be complete and total decriminalization of natural marijuana. To its credit, the NCAA is actually moving in this direction.