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Should NBA Players Be Able to Smoke Marijuana?

The travails and talent of Larry Sanders bring up a quandary for one Trail Blazers fan.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

An interesting Mailbag question comes our way today, just the kind we like!


I read with interest your recent mailbag answer on Larry Sanders where you said (paraphrasing here) that if his offense is "just" marijuana we should let it go and make him a Blazer.  I was wondering how that stance fit in with your personal opinions on drugs and even more how it would go over in your day job as a minister.  Just curious.

Chris G

The short answer is that I don't see any conflict between my personal or either of my professional views on marijuana. If I did, I'd probably have more reservations about Sanders than I do.

We also need a clarification. I didn't say the front office should make Sanders a Trail Blazer, rather that they shouldn't automatically disqualify him for marijuana use alone. There may be plenty of other valid reasons to not want the guy on your team.

We've received more clarity over the last few weeks on Sanders' condition. He's been suspended multiple times for violating the league's drug policy with marijuana assumed as the drug in question. The Milwaukee Bucks have decided to part ways with him because of his intermittent performance, which completes the list of his professional difficulties. He's admitted personally that he suffers from depression. This may well contribute to his professional issues of pot use and fluctuating motivation.

I don't think it's fair to Sanders or the overall topic to isolate marijuana use from his mental state. For me, this is one of the stronger arguments why it shouldn't be held against him, Instead of suspending Sanders for something that may be keeping him alive to play his next game, the NBA should re-think its drug policy instead.

But let's start at the beginning of your question. I've never used drugs. I couldn't tell you anything more about their symptoms or effects than I've read about. I don't derive any moral superiority from my non-drug use; I've just never been tempted that much. I pretty much like the way my brain perceives things in normal life. Plus I don't like feeling intoxicated or out of control.

I do drink socially, sometimes even at home for fun, but I've only been rip-roaring drunk once in my life. Ironically, that happened at seminary. Our third year was spent in the field on internship, which means all the live-in students had to clear out their cupboards at the end of Year 2. A married couple I knew had a large cupboard full of whiskey and rum. They invited me over to hang and have a few drinks. I happily downed...what? Five or six? Maybe more? When I stood up I figured out pretty quickly that I wouldn't be standing up pretty quickly. After stumbling home, fumbling with keys in locks, and bazooka barfing rum and coke all night I could officially say I'd been shnockered.

I didn't regret that experience at all. It's a great story, in fact. But I didn't have more fun that night than I've had a hundred other nights with various friends, sober. So my personal attitude towards artificially-induced, mind-altering experiences is "take it or leave it". Since mind-altering substances cost money, some are illegal, and approximately 0% of my current friends indulge publicly enough to do them in front of their pastor, it's pretty much been "leave it".

Then again, I have known people who admitted using marijuana. They weren't any less my friends nor any less responsible because they did so. I know people now who used to smoke pot but don't anymore. It doesn't seem to have impeded their ability to become responsible adults (or whatever people they wanted to become). I've heard horror stories of people mooching off others, sitting around on a couch all day wanting to do nothing but get high. But I've heard [and seen] those stories about alcohol too...and World of Warcraft...and Sex and the City. Almost anything can lapse into an addictive pattern.

Because of my personal experience and the stories of people I trust--and with no medical evidence to back it up whatsoever--I'm of the opinion that pot falls closer to the alcohol level of addiction potential than to the instant, much scarier meth and heroin level. I'm far more concerned about people who habitually drink too much or chain smoke cigarettes than I am about your average pot smoker. I've seen more of the former turn out badly than the latter.

This doesn't mean I condone marijuana use or advise it. Like everything in life, it's a choice. That choice has consequences, pleasant and unpleasant. If someone were to ask me for advice I'd probably say, "You could spend your time and energy in more productive ways, getting those good feelings at a lesser cost." But we don't administer drug tests at the church doors on Sunday. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that somebody in my congregation uses marijuana. If that's their choice and I can't detect any way it's harming their lives or relationships, well, the only group where everyone agrees upon every decision is a group of one.

The story changes a little when talking to young folks about this subject. My stance on teenage life is simple: you're entitled to try out things, to make mistakes, to be forgiven for the parts of those mistakes that turn out bad, and to enjoy the parts of those mistakes that turn out well despite all odds. Lord knows all of us did the same. If we had to be perfect in order to make it into sane, stable adulthood the planet would be empty. We learn more from things we do wrong than things we don't try.

When you're young the trick is to make the kind of mistakes that have acceptable, manageable consequences. A teenager's goal isn't to be error-free. (You should never trust the good guys. I'm living proof.)  But you don't want to make mistakes at 16 that you'll still be paying for at 40, incurring a permanent penalty for temporary decisions.

Since so many things--including the human brain--are in flux during our developmental years, I don't see any problem with saying that some decisions are best left until later...until identities are better known, desires clearer, consequences delineated, and reservoirs from which to pay the price for mistakes deepen. This includes the use of mind-altering substances. It's not that alcohol, pot, heroin are better or worse at 26 than they are at 16, rather a 26-year-old is better able to make those decisions and to understand what's at stake. At 16 your cement's still wet. Footprints leave more of an impression than in your 20's when you're all dried up and firm. You want to tread more lightly when you're young, especially when it comes to potentially messing up your brain chemistry.

Bending back towards the NBA part of the question, saying the Trail Blazers shouldn't automatically disqualify Larry Sanders for pot use doesn't contradict anything I've just said. It doesn't mean I'd advise anyone to smoke. It doesn't keep me from telling kids not to do drugs. It doesn't mean that I'm callous, not caring about the possible effects of an addiction on Sanders himself as long as he can play basketball. Sanders is a 26-year-old man. He has the right to make his choices and take the consequences just like all of us do. But those consequences aren't, and shouldn't be, immutable. Drug use is far more complex and nuanced than public service ads used to tell us. Our response to it can be too.

With marijuana becoming legal in a few states now, with more perhaps to follow, it might be time for the NBA to reconsider that part of their drug use policy. For a long time the league was gun-shy on issues like this, remembering the cocaine meltdown of the 80's,  including the tragic death of Len Bias. Those memories should be honored. The NBA needs a strong anti-drug stance. But the days of assuming that all drugs are alike--particularly that pot is a "gateway drug"--are mostly past us, gone the way of Oprah's "Rainbow Parties" for teenage girls. Can stuff like that happen? Sure. Does it? It's rare, probably transpiring among people who would have found their way to the extreme anyway. I've never been a fan of regulating a large population based on the actions of a fringe few. You can use that excuse for banning everything from Twinkies to D&D.

I'm not suggesting that league take a pro-pot stance. The public fallout would be far too high and the example for younger fans distasteful. It'd be simpler to remove pot from the list of substances tested for under the drug policy. It's still illegal in many places. Running afoul of the law for marijuana use would be a better litmus test for whether punishment was mandated. In effect the league would be saying, "We're not taking a side on this issue. If you've got your stuff together enough that nobody notices your pot use and it doesn't reflect poorly on you or your team, we're not going to notice either. If you can't keep it under control enough to get along with the rest of society, then you may have a problem and we're going to have a problem with you." This would let the majority of players make adult decisions about pot in peace--like the rest of us get to do--while reserving the right to bring down the hammer on "tinfoil in airport" or "yellow Hummer on freeway" incidents.

As someone who doesn't use drugs, who would advise people not to use drugs, and who has an interest in helping kids choose not to use drugs, that kind of policy would satisfy me entirely. If one of our Portland Trail Blazers "heroes" goes home and quietly lights up with his friends (or to relieve chronic pain) I don't need to know that anymore than I need to know if you, a reader of this website, do. I don't want any players suspended for making a decision that the rest of us also have the right to make, for good or ill. If he's cranking his woofer to 11 cruising through a school zone trailing a cloud of weed behind his ride, then I want him suspended, not because he's using pot but because he's showing no regard for the responsibility that comes along with his position.

This distinction holds triply true for Larry Sanders. The real story with him isn't pot or basketball, it's depression. I also suffered depression in my 20's. I got through it without the aid of any medication, prescription or illicit. That was hard. At times I felt like I wasn't going to make it. At least I got to crawl the agonizing steps of that journey quietly, in my own little world. I can't imagine having to do it now when I'm on public display every day. And my public display is about 1/1000 the size of Larry Sanders'. In his shoes I'd have crumbled long before he did.

Self-medicating is not one of the better ways to deal with depression. But if you're a 20-something guy with tons of money, not much social structure, you live beneath a blinding spotlight, and your life consists of brief spurts of pressure-packed competition scattered among acres of self-directed free time and you're suffering depression through all of this? I'm actually impressed that pot is the only thing you're self-medicating with. More to the point, I'm not thinking for a second of taking that coping mechanism away from you or condemning it--not even suggesting a permanent alternative--until you're on your feet, well-supported, and charting a clear way forward. Until then, if you're sitting in a hotel room in Cleveland at 2 a.m. with depressive thoughts and pot is the only thing making it better, smoke like a chimney, my man. Yup, even if the drug test is tomorrow.

It's not fair for any of us to say differently in this kind of situation, including the NBA. Depression is far more deadly and harmful than marijuana will ever be. It's a glaring gap in oversight that the league monitors for and copes with drug use but has about half a thimbleful of a clue about mental health...especially with the radical and rapid lifestyle, social, and emotional changes these guys go through in a white-hot crucible under the public eye far from home at a relatively young age.

Larry Sanders probably can't continue to marry marijuana with depression relief for the rest of his life and come up with a happy ending. At some point he'll need a different road forward, if not to supplant the pot at least to put it in its place. It's perfectly fair to suggest that. It's unfair to condemn and take away one of his coping mechanisms without offering a number of others to support him. That's exactly what the league's drug policy does. "Depressed? Suicidal maybe? Well, as long as you don't smoke pot..."  It's counter-productive and misplaced. When a rule designed to keep players healthy and out of trouble does the opposite, it's time for a change.

The litmus test of whether Larry Sanders should be welcome on the Trail Blazers or any other NBA team has little to do with marijuana use. GM's should want to know how he's dealing with his depression, if he's regained the motivation to play in the NBA, and what their organization needs to do to help him in that journey. If they can answer those questions, his pot use should be a non-factor.

If I were a GM and this came up, I'd advise Sanders to make sure his habits didn't run beyond marijuana. I'd advise him not to cross legal lines or media/public perception. If he could manage those things I'd be fine with him.

If the league called and wanted more, my first response would be telling them to leave the guy alone. Plenty of people in the NBA use pot. If a depression-sufferer needs to do so a little more obviously than the rest, well, his situation is a little bit different. If he required it for his eyes or for cancer, we'd probably be sympathetic. Why not for his brain too? And why are we obsessing over a policy that condemns people who are already suffering, potentially sacrificing a young man's well-being so everybody can look good in front of a camera? No matter how pious the stance seems, in cases like this it's a bad deal all around.


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