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Several NFL owners, execs eyeing marijuana discipline changes

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With public attitudes and laws changing in the United States regarding the use of recreational and medical marijuana, minds are beginning to change in the NFL as well.

Based on conversations with 10 NFL team owners and executives over the past few months, marijuana usage could emerge as a key issue when the collective bargaining agreement is renegotiated over the next few years. The team sources spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about the subject.

Each of the owners support additional study and discussion regarding what the league's stance should be on medical and recreational pot use for players. The majority of the sample size supports a "decriminalization" of marijuana that would make it more difficult for players to be suspended. Two of the principals involved in the issue said they are open to getting rid of marijuana-related suspensions and only issuing fines. Two others said they are worried about sending the message that drug use is tolerated and believe suspensions must remain.

Although there is a consensus to being open to change, there's no unanimity on what should be done.

Easing marijuana restrictions would be a continuation of changes made in the last drug policy negotiation in 2014. In addition to the implementation of human growth hormone testing and mandatory discipline for DUIs, the suspension threshold for a positive marijuana test was raised. Players could test positive for pot four times without being suspended by the NFL.

Most of the executives who spoke about the issue supported lowering the standards tied to marijuana-related suspensions. A few mentioned conversations with other owners that signaled much more support for vetting the issues and lowering restrictions. One said there is a "groundswell" of support among owners to ease suspensions for marijuana-related infractions.

Changes to the current drug policy would need to be agreed upon by the league and the NFL Players Association, either as part of future CBA renegotiation discussions or as a separate policy. Voters in Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, California and Nevada have legalized the recreational use of pot in some form or fashion. Florida, North Dakota, Montana and Arkansas have recently passed medical cannabis referendums.

A majority of states allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes. Seven NFL teams are in states that allow recreational marijuana use and 16 teams are in locations with approved medical use.

Several league executives said the NFL should "follow the country" in the changing attitudes about marijuana use. In addition, the high-profile suspensions of Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon and Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory also has raised more awareness about the issue.

In a statement, the NFL said the league and the NFLPA are constantly reviewing research and scientific data and will follow the advice of experts.

"Medical experts have not recommended making a change or revisiting our collectively-bargained policy and approach related to marijuana," an NFL spokesman said. The league ultimately would discuss a change to its drug policy if it benefited players.

Meanwhile, the NFLPA is forming a committee for a study that, among other things, will examine if marijuana can be an effective pain-management option for players.

As far as the NFL is concerned, there are several issues that are spurring a close examination of the league's marijuana stance.

One of the executives made a point about potential competitive imbalance issues stemming from conflicts between state laws and the league drug policy. For example, if a player in Indiana were arrested for marijuana possession, he faces the possibility of an NFL suspension for the arrest. Conversely, a player in Seattle or Denver could legally possess the same amount of marijuana and never be cited or arrested -- avoiding any potential discipline from the league. The executive asked, "Is that really fair?"

Another executive questioned if it's fair for a player to be suspended four games for testing positive for marijuana via second-hand smoke. One owner, whose team has encountered marijuana issues in the past, wondered why the NFL is so stringent about marijuana testing compared to other sports leagues.

A league source said team owners seem open to revising pot restrictions as part of CBA discussions, although any changes would depend on many factors in negotiations. There is a consensus that changes to the policy must be made. The general feeling is that discipline standards need to be modified since marijuana use in many parts of the United States is no longer a crime.

With this backdrop, it's possible marijuana use among NFL players could become a bigger issue going forward.

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet

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