THE ‘GRASS’ IS GREENER IN THE CFL

Le­gal­iza­tion of lit­tle con­se­quence in the CFL, where league, team of­fi­cials have looked the other way when it comes to play­ers us­ing pot

Winnipeg Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - JEFF HAMIL­TON

When it comes to pot and its play­ers, the league has tra­di­tion­ally looked the other way. Lit­tle is ex­pected to change when cannabis is le­gal­ized next week /

FOR many years, the Cana­dian Foot­ball League has turned mostly a blind eye when it comes to its play­ers and the con­sump­tion of mar­i­juana.

The league doesn’t cur­rently test for cannabis and, as re­cent his­tory sug­gests, nor does it seem to care all that much when its play­ers are ar­rested with the drug.

Just ask Duron Carter who, while a mem­ber of the Saskatchewan Roughrid­ers, was busted not once but twice by Cana­dian air­port se­cu­rity try­ing to board a plane with cannabis.

Carter, who was granted a to­tal dis­charge af­ter plead­ing guilty to mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion in Winnipeg but is still await­ing trial for sim­i­lar charges in Saskatoon, re­ceived no sup­ple­men­tary dis­ci­pline from the CFL. He was even shel­tered from re­porters dur­ing CFL week in Winnipeg last March, shortly af­ter the in­ci­dents were made pub­lic; the league looked a bit fool­ish when Carter later ap­peared on one of its in­ter­view shows.

“This is an in­ter­est­ing, if not con­fus­ing, time in so­ci­ety with the chang­ing land­scape on mar­i­juana laws. There is some part of this process that is be­ing con­fused by the fact that we are on the doorstep of a law that is go­ing to change,” CFL com­mis­sioner Randy Am­brosie told 3downna­tion at the time.

“We’ve been speak­ing to other or­ga­ni­za­tions and we’ve been try­ing to fig­ure out where are we go­ing to go with this? If the law of the land is that mar­i­juana is le­gal, we’re go­ing to have to re­flect on this.”

Re­cre­ational mar­i­juana use will be le­gal in Canada be­gin­ning Wed­nes­day, mak­ing it just the sec­ond coun­try in the world to im­ple­ment a na­tion­wide per­mit for those of age in­ter­ested in re­cre­ational con­sump­tion.

Given the CFL’s lax cannabis rules what, if any­thing then, is ex­pected to change for the league once le­gal­iza­tion sets in? The an­swer is, not much.

“Like many busi­nesses and em­ploy­ers, we are work­ing to as­sess the po­ten­tial im­pact of the le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana later this month,” a CFL spokesman told the Free Press in an email.

“This is un­charted ter­ri­tory, of course, but at this point it ap­pears the ef­fect on the CFL will be min­i­mal.”

The fact that lit­tle will change for the CFL once fed­eral leg­is­la­tion kicks in isn’t all that sur­pris­ing, even as other in­dus­tries move quickly to im­ple­ment rules to pro­tect them­selves. For the league to sud­denly reg­u­late re­cre­ational mar­i­juana use would be to ig­nore the long­stand­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the CFL and pot.

For in­stance, the CFL has long been con­sid­ered a haven for play­ers in the NFL who have been out­lawed af­ter fail­ing drug tests. While the NFL hands down hefty sus­pen­sions to play­ers caught with cannabis in their sys­tem, the CFL does not. Canada has in­stead opened its doors for many play­ers that have been pun­ished south of the bor­der, in some cases mul­ti­ple times.

Run­ning back Ricky Wil­liams was one of the CFL’s more no­table cases. Four years af­ter lead­ing the NFL in rush­ing as a mem­ber of the Mi­ami Dol­phins, he was loaned to Toronto for the 2006 sea­son while serv­ing a sea­son-long sus­pen­sion for fail­ing the NFL’s sub­stance pol­icy for a fourth time. In­ter­est­ingly, the in­frac­tion was ru­moured to be be­cause of an­other herb Wil­liams used as holis­tic medicine, and not from mar­i­juana.

Wil­liams re­turned to the NFL the fol­low­ing year, and shortly af­ter, the CFL cre­ated a new pol­icy — known in­for­mally as the Ricky Wil­liams rule — that pre­vented a team from sign­ing a player serv­ing a sus­pen­sion in the NFL. The rule wasn’t seen so much as a crackdown against mar­i­juana as it was a sign of re­spect for the penal­ties handed down by the NFL.

In fact, al­though the rule kicked in for the start of the 2007 sea­son, it didn’t ap­ply to play­ers al­ready in the CFL, in­clud­ing tackle Bernard Wil­liams, a known pot smoker who played for years in Toronto. Wil­liams failed al­most as many drug tests (15) as games he played with the Philadel­phia Ea­gles (16) be­fore fi­nally be­ing banned from the NFL.

Mar­i­juana use, though cer­tainly not en­cour­aged or per­mit­ted by CFL front of­fices, has long been ac­cepted within locker rooms. Many play­ers, in­clud­ing some of the league’s bright­est stars, are known to light up on oc­ca­sion.

“Pretty much ev­ery­one, mi­nus a hand­ful of play­ers on any given team, have at least tried it and many do it reg­u­larly,” said a cur­rent player, who re­quested anonymity.

Jonathan Hefney, a two-time CFL all-star who played six sea­sons for Winnipeg, Cal­gary and Mon­treal be­fore suf­fer­ing a ca­reer-end­ing in­jury with the Alou­ettes mid­way through the 2015 cam­paign, said weed use is ram­pant.

“I guar­an­tee there’s 90 to 95 per cent of those boys smok­ing weed out there,” said Hefney who, three years af­ter his in­jury, still re­quires mul­ti­ple surg­eries to re­gain full use of his right arm.

Hefney is best known for his years in Winnipeg, where he was a proud mem­ber of the Bombers’ Swag­gerville de­fence. Con­sid­ered among his peers to be the ul­ti­mate team player, and ar­guably one of the CFL’s most feared hit­ters, he was also a ha­bit­ual smoker dur­ing his play­ing days.

“I’d get up at about 6:30, 7 o’clock, and I’d smoke one while mak­ing break­fast,” he said from his North Carolina home. “When I’m on my way to prac­tice I might smoke a lit­tle bit be­fore and then put it out, make sure I smell at least de­cent go­ing in. By the time I got to the sta­dium…. I was ready to go for the whole prac­tice.”

Hefney didn’t grow up smok­ing cannabis, and he doesn’t ad­vo­cate for young play­ers to ex­per­i­ment with the drug dur­ing their for­ma­tive foot­ball years. It wasn’t un­til he went un­drafted in the NFL, then was signed to the Philadel­phia Ea­gles’ prac­tice squad that he was per­suaded to take a puff.

“For me, damn, it slowed ev­ery­thing down and I could learn bet­ter. My coach in col­lege used to al­ways tell me, he said, ‘One day you’re go­ing to get to smok­ing and it’s go­ing to slow your ass all the way down,’ be­cause I was hy­per. Ev­ery­thing I did was quick — boom! Boom! I’d just be mov­ing around — and I couldn’t sit still be­cause I had ADHD,” said Hefney.

“It just calms me down and af­ter I can go into a meet­ing room and sit there and just lis­ten, fo­cus in.”

Head coach Mike Kelly, who was known for giv­ing his play­ers a long leash, led the team when Hefney joined the Bombers in 2009. The cul­ture in­cluded sev­eral play­ers in­dulging in mar­i­juana, most of­ten af­ter games.

But Hefney said there were def­i­nitely times when work and plea­sure some­times in­ter­twined.

“I know our meet­ing room used to have a good smell to it,” he said. “Say when we do the whole-team room, you know who the smok­ers are be­cause they’re all in the same sec­tion. Ev­ery­body just did their thing and it was on the low. I don’t know if it’s all a se­cret still but the play­ers, they know who smokes or not.”

Hefney was and con­tin­ues to be a re­cre­ational pot user and takes a mea­sure of pride in the fact it has pre­vented him from turn­ing to pre­scrip­tion drugs to man­age the pain he still feels from his play­ing days.

Dur­ing those years on the foot­ball field, Hefney said apart from tak­ing some­thing here or there for a nag­ging headache, only once — af­ter a game against the Roughrid­ers when he was left reel­ing from a hit — did he ever need any­thing stronger.

Pills were never ap­peal­ing; Hefney has seen enough play­ers get hooked on painkillers to val­i­date his com­mit­ment to mar­i­juana.

“Get your­self a nice lit­tle cone, stuff it real good and you’ll be good. And if that one doesn’t work, smoke an­other one and then you’ll be good, I prom­ise,” he said. “I smoked af­ter games all the time. The only other thing I ever had to do was a take a shot one time when I got hurt, dur­ing a game in Saskatchewan. I was hurt­ing that bad so they gave me a shot and it kind of numbed it. Other than that I was just smok­ing.”

It’s im­por­tant to note that there is a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween re­cre­ational and medic­i­nal mar­i­juana use in the CFL, at least when it comes to how the league of­fi­cially gov­erns its use.

“We ex­pect all of our em­ploy­ees, those work­ing in our busi­ness of­fices as well as those who com­pete on the field, to act re­spon­si­bly and in com­pli­ance with the law. That ob­vi­ously in­cludes not com­ing to work im­paired from any sub­stance. We have faith our em­ploy­ees will dis­play that sort of com­mon sense,” a league spokesman said.

“Med­i­cal mar­i­juana has been le­gal for sev­eral years. The use of any med­i­ca­tion is a mat­ter be­tween physi­cian and pa­tient. The league would not in­ter­fere in that re­la­tion­ship.”

Hefney didn’t want to make any blan­ket pre­dic­tions for what might hap­pen in the CFL af­ter Wed­nes­day’s le­gal­iza­tion. But he said he hopes that the league will look into its med­i­cal ben­e­fits, even if it’s just to ed­u­cate play­ers on op­tions for treat­ing pain.

“Play­ers are go­ing to smoke re­gard­less. There isn’t much they can do be­sides maybe give them a med­i­cal card or some­thing,” he said. “I re­ally don’t know what you can do.”

While the CFL has yet to com­mit one way or an­other to pur­su­ing re­search on the ben­e­fits of cannabis for med­i­cal pur­poses, there’s a group of for­mer play­ers that will soon take part in an ob­ser­va­tional study, test­ing mar­i­juana prod­ucts to help with aches and pains.

Ear­lier this year, the CFL Alumni As­so­ci­a­tion, which isn’t di­rectly con­nected to the league, en­tered into an agree­ment with MedRe­leaf, a lead­ing med­i­cal cannabis pro­ducer and re­searcher in North Amer­ica. MedRe­leaf, along with Can­nascribe, an­other cannabis con­sult­ing firm, will be fa­cil­i­tat­ing an ob­ser­va­tional study that will in­clude about 50 re­tired play­ers.

To bring cred­i­bil­ity to their cause, the CFLAA has al­ready put to­gether a cannabis ad­vi­sory board, which is chaired by for­mer Nova Sco­tia premier Dar­rell Dex­ter, now a vice-chair at Global Pub­lic Af­fairs, Canada’s largest pri­vately held gov­ern­ment-re­la­tions firm. The ad­vi­sory board was put in place to make sure the CFLAA is get­ting good le­gal ad­vice, good pub­lic-pol­icy ad­vice and also med­i­cal and travel ad­vice for play­ers in­volved in the study. Along with Dex­ter, the board in­cludes a doc­tor and lawyer, and some for­mer CFL play­ers.

“The real­ity is, there ac­tu­ally isn’t a lot of great em­pir­i­cal data on med­i­cal cannabis be­cause it’s been il­le­gal for so long,” said Rod El­liot, who heads up the cannabis sec­tor for Global Pub­lic Af­fairs. El­liot hopes the study will un­veil some real med­i­cal ben­e­fits for treat­ing short- and longer-term pain and dis­pel some of the myths around us­ing the drug.

“I think a lot of peo­ple think with med­i­cal cannabis you got to go into your garage, put on a Jimmy Hen­drix record and you’re go­ing to get ‘high,’” El­liot said.

“What we’re re­ally talk­ing about is pri­mar­ily CBD (cannabid­iol oil) prod­ucts, which, hope­fully, this study will show to have some ben­e­fits for treat­ments of some of these con­di­tions. It’s re­ally about over­com­ing some of the stigma around med­i­cal cannabis uses. I think so­ci­ety is evolv­ing but there is still a stigma around cannabis.”

Leo Ez­erins, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the CFLAA, said he is en­cour­aged by the re­cent de­vel­op­ments, es­pe­cially the cre­ation of the ad­vi­sory board. He looks for­ward to what the study might lead to and, more specif­i­cally, how it could help for­mer play­ers who are suf­fer­ing from pain get the re­lief they des­per­ately need.

“The CFLAA has al­ways sought to make a dif­fer­ence by pro­vid­ing sup­port to our alumni, many of whom ex­pe­ri­enced med­i­cal chal­lenges fol­low­ing their ath­letic ca­reers,” said Ez­erins. “In col­lab­o­rat­ing with MedRe­leaf we hope to gain fur­ther in­sight into the ben­e­fits of med­i­cal cannabis in man­ag­ing chronic pain — in­sight that could be in­valu­able to our al­most 2,000 alumni mem­bers.”

— Jonathan Hefney Play­ers are go­ing to smoke re­gard­less. There isn’t much they can do be­sides maybe give them a med­i­cal card or some­thing. I re­ally don’t know what you can do’

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS IL­LUS­TRA­TION

While the NFL takes a hard stance against play­ers test­ing pos­i­tive for cannabis, the CFL does not.

MARK TAY­LOR / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

For­mer Roughrider Duron Carter was caught twice try­ing to en­ter Canada with cannabis prod­ucts. He re­ceived an ab­so­lute dis­charge in one case and is fight­ing the other.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

For­mer Blue Bomber Jonathan Hefney used mar­i­juana to help with pain re­lief.

MARC GAL­LANT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

When run­ning back Ricky Wil­liams failed the NFL’s drug test, he came north to the CFL.

AN­DREW VAUGHAN / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

For­mer Nova Sco­tia Premier Dar­rell Dex­ter chairs a cannabis ad­vi­sory board for the CFL alumni as­so­ci­a­tion.

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