It's been over a month since the news broke of UFC fighter Nick Diaz’s five-year suspension and $165,000 fine for testing positive for marijuana. Some will make the argument that he is a repeat offender, and therefore well aware of the possible consequences. The same reasoning is used to justify over packed prisons with non-violent drug offenders – many face long stints due to repeat offenses. Still others will make the argument that in a country with 23 states and the District of Columbia having established legal marijuana in some form, though mostly medical, a system that dishes out punishments with a devastating impact on a person’s life does far more harm than the offenses it is meant to deter.
Growing up in the United States, it’s hard not to become an optimist – that is, of course, if you come from a middle-class-and-up family and don’t happen to be a minority. I remember reciting the pledge every morning, hand on my heart, and thinking about each word as it rolled off my tongue. How lucky am I to be born in a place where liberty and justice for all is so engrained in our minds every day.
Flash forward into adulthood, I have come to realize how naive I had been. I’m thankful of cellphone cameras that document and expose injustices as they are lobbed against the most vulnerable in our society at a remarkably disproportionate rate. Nowhere is the disparity so apparent than in drug offenses committed by minorities – or in court defenses only imaginable by the wealthy.
Punishment is arguably the most effective tool we have as a society to ensure that we can provide the promised “liberty and justice for all,” but punishments must be just and rational in order to be effective. For the sake of brevity, let’s take a look at a simplified model. For violent members of society, jail time makes sense as they are a threat to public safety. As for white-collar criminals, they deserve hefty fines for sure, and perhaps some jail time for their shady business. And distribution of illegal substances should be treated similar to white-collar crimes as manufacturers and drug dealers are in it to profit through illegal means.
Another point to consider is where drug users fit into the above model: Well, they don’t for the most part as they are not a danger to society or trying to obtain illegal advantages. When we lock up this group, we tear apart families that oftentimes would fare much better under different circumstances. Any system that touts to provide liberty and justice for all must understand the necessity to evaluate each case on an individual basis.
In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana with the passage of Proposition 215. Nearly two decades later, similar measures have been established by state governments in almost half the country. Last year, our congress finally put an end to the federal government’s ban on medical marijuana. Even Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a longtime foe of the medical marijuana community, has since apologized for his actions and jumped the hedge citing a lack of government evidence for the schedule-one classification of marijuana, and revealing several personal experiences he has had with patients whose symptoms were in fact relieved as a result of marijuana when no other medicine had any effective results.
In the case of athletes, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of them are medical marijuana users – or even recreational users for that matter. We certainly shouldn’t be shaming them for these choices either. On one hand, marijuana has long been demonized as a drug that will make you unmotivated and lazy, while on the other hand, athletes are condemned for using it as a performance enhancing substance.
I’m pretty sure nobody would make the argument that athletes, including NFL players, UFC fighters, as well as some Olympic medalists who reached their top did so because of marijuana. These are some of our most highly motivated people who’ve spent and continue to spend much of their lives training for their aspirations.
We certainly can’t make the argument that these organizations are simply concerned about the health of their athletes. If that were the case, every athlete would be on strict diets. Alcohol and tobacco would undoubtedly be off-limits. But that is not the case. What we have instead are remnants of failed marijuana policy, selectively enforced at the sole discretion of the powerful. If The Man happens to be a prohibitionist – the rest is history.
I had the great honor of chatting with an NFL player last year who was perhaps one of the most stand-up guys I’ve ever met. He recounted the horrors of testing positive for marijuana while in the NFL. He is routinely drug-tested no matter where he goes, and more often than people on probation for drug-related arrests that I know. Because marijuana is one of the only things that curbs his anxiety, he has turned to “legal herbs” to replace it, which often times are very dangerous, although not banned. He has even considered early retirement so that he can have access to his medicine without the fear of being harassed.
At a time when over half of our country supports marijuana legalization in some form, marijuana testing and subsequent punishing tends to land in the realm of invasion of privacy rather than crimes of moral turpitude. In the case of Mr. Diaz, a punishment likely to end his career is without a doubt personal rather than just.
(For the record: I have no affiliation with the UFC fighter Nick Diaz, or with the UFC in any way. I am concerned that this punishment sets a draconian precedent for the future of athletes who are marijuana users).
Enjoy Your Roll