Barber: Ex-49er Nick Moody among athletes advocating for pot

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OAKLAND — Nick Moody was a 49ers linebacker in 2013 and 2014. He played parts of two other seasons with Seattle and Washington. And before just about every game, his routine was the same: get taped and padded up, stretch, study the playbook and get high.

Moody started smoking weed in high school. He failed a test at Florida State, and butted heads with NFL management over the issue. But he never considered his usage a problem. The ban on marijuana in football? That was the problem.

“I feel like my best games were when I was highest,” Moody told me recently.

Weed was Moody’s anti-anxiety medication. It took the edge off NFL games, slowed them down, dimmed the nervousness, cleared his head, made it feel more like practice. “It kind of kept me from overthinking stuff,” he said.

And he didn’t light up alone. Playing under Jim Harbaugh, Moody would join a few teammates for their pregame ritual. “And we were real good, too,” he noted.

Indeed, the 49ers played in the NFC championship game in Moody’s rookie season. They were a touchdown short of going to the Super Bowl. Moody would like to be playing still. He had a tryout with the Browns this year. When nothing came of it, he decided to go public as an advocate for his other passion: marijuana.

In effect, he joined a chorus. Some athletes, like Moody, appreciate weed’s calming effect. Others see the herb as an alternative to addictive painkillers. Some believe it can even diminish the long-term effects of head trauma. Voters are starting to agree with them, even if many of their bosses don’t.

I caught up with Moody on Oct. 13, at the New West Summit in downtown Oakland. The setting was the Marriott City Center, which is connected to the Oakland Convention Center and is currently the site of the Golden State Warriors’ offices and practice courts. I’ve been there a hundred times, and frequently there is some sort of gathering abuzz on the ground floor. This one distinguished itself before I even set foot inside, as I walked through clouds of secondhand pot smoke on 10th Street.

The New West Summit was pretty much Weedapalooza. The center’s East Hall was a giant business fair. Vendors offered cannabis in gels, candies, coffee, tea and soft drinks. “It’s heavily dosed,” a lovely rep announced as she skewered strawberries and set out pretzels for dipping into the chocolate fountain her company had flowing. She was kidding. No THC in the chocolate that day.

Other booths covered practically every side of the cannabis business, from growing supplements, scales and e-commerce to security, testing instruments and vape technology. One vendor sold hemp oil for pets.

I was there that Saturday not for my nervous cat, but for a pair of discussion panels. The first, “The Future of Cannabis in Professional Sports,” featured two football players and a hockey player. The second, “An Honest Discussion Around Cannabis and Physical Activity,” focused on X Games-style extreme sports.

The message varied little between the two panels, though the featured athletes had very different relationships with pot. Marvin Washington, an NFL defensive lineman for 11 seasons (including two with the 49ers), said he micro-doses CBD (cannabidiol, a cannabis constituent with no psychoactive properties) every day for pain relief; “It’s like oil for the tin man,” he explained. Skateboarder Bob Burnquist said he would never get high for a big-ramp competition, because it would make him too nervous, but that it was perfectly appropriate for a creative best-trick contest. BMX cyclist Marc Willers said he never once rode while high; he didn’t embrace weed until he retired from the sport.

Frank Shamrock, a former MMA fighter and now a TV commentator, said he’s been smoking for 25 years and was a regular user while he was fighting. The only time it held him back was when he got licensed for a fight, because he knew he’d be tested.

“So I would stop smoking three weeks out, and just have the worst three weeks of my life,” Shamrock said. “And then I would go destroy somebody and go right back to it.”

To be clear, most of these spokesmen are involved with cannabis products. They have something to gain from its legalization and wider acceptance. Moody, for example, is a partner in CLC Brand Labs, which is already in production, and in another label, Flight Plan, that is in the works.

But most were users before they were businessmen, and it’s not like the New West Summit panelists are the only athletes extolling the benefits of pot. NFLers Jim McMahon and Kyle Turley, NBAers Al Harrington and Kenyon Martin, fighter Nick Diaz and cyclist Floyd Landis are among the advocates. Matt Barnes, who won an NBA championship with the Warriors in 2017, told Bleacher Report a few months ago that he regularly got high before games. It’s not just for Ricky Williams anymore.

And these are just the athletes who have gone public. At the summit, former hockey player Riley Cote estimated that more than 50 percent of NHL skaters indulge. Moody believes the number is more like 85 percent in the NFL.

What seems to bother the pro-cannabis athletes most is the hypocrisy and arbitrariness of current drug policy. Moody said that when he was at Florida State, some players were punished for using while others weren’t (like him); he believes it was based, in part, on value to the team. And then there is the lack of consistency in drug laws across states, a minefield made trickier by the federal government’s hostility toward legal marijuana.

“I remember when I first got back from the Niners, I get back to Miami, I’m feeling the same way I did out here,” Moody said. “We go out to my friend’s house, I’m taking it with me. They’re like, ‘This is not California, bruh. You can’t just hand it to me.’”

More than anything, though, there is frustration that we treat pot like a menace while absolving legal drugs like alcohol and opiates, which are recognized as more addictive and more harmful to the body over time.

Moody, who wound up suspended for four games after testing positive for a stimulant, remembers then-49ers general manager Trent Baalke dripping with condescension when he asked the player, “What are we gonna do with you when you get some real money?” Baalke knew that Moody smoked weed and was implying that the player had no self-control, though according to Moody it was coaches and team executives frequently getting “blackout drunk.”

“Every time we go on the road, you come back to the hotel smashed. Every time,” Moody said. “But I can’t smoke and watch TV?”

Moody isn’t alone in seeing the contrast as a form of social control. Everyone is liable to get high these days, but marijuana has most often been associated with minority communities and the underclass. That’s why popping the cork on a wine bottle is seen as good, clean fun while firing up a bong still feels like taboo.

“Most people, you mention cannabis or whatever, they think of Cheech and Chong or ‘Reefer Madness’ and all that,” Washington said. “… You go back to Texas, where I’m from, and my mother thinks I’m a drug dealer and I’m gonna go to jail.”

The opioid situation is even harder to make sense of. America is in the midst of a gruesome epidemic, fueled by both over-the-counter pills such as Oxycodone and street drugs like heroin. It’s in the news all the time. We acknowledge the harm. And yet professional athletes are routinely given opium derivatives to dull their pain.

“When a football coach says I need to play — ‘(Shoot), let me get some opiates. I need a Norco, or a Toradol shot, or a Toradol pill. Or certain types of anti-inflammatories, like indomethacin, which tears your liver apart,’” Moody said. “It’s a culture thing, too. It’s normalized. And you hear about the older guys: ‘Damn, it was way worse than this.’ They’re like, ‘Well, in the old days they’d just grab a bowl of Vicodins.’”

“I had a (former teammate) that hadn’t played since 1994, and he was still taking I think 300 milligrams of Percocet a day,” Washington said. “And we got him on some CBD, and he cut down.”

The NFL also allows stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall under its therapeutic use exemption. But not cannabis.

Across the major sports, marijuana policy is a patchwork.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has expressed openness to allowing pot for pain management, yet the drug is officially banned.

One positive test or marijuana conviction puts a player in the treatment program, a second results in a $25,000 fine, a third triggers a five-game suspension, with the punishment increasing after that. The NBA has a relatively low threshold for THC, marijuana’s active ingredient, at 15 nanograms per milliliter, but does not test during the offseason.

Major League Baseball does not randomly test for THC, though it can initiate testing if it has reason to believe a player is using. Positive samples may draw fines of up to $35,000, but not suspensions. (This applies only to major-league players. Minor leaguers, not protected by a union, have been suspended for as many as 100 games.) The NHL tests for THC while collecting information on performance-enhancing drugs, but does not suspend for it.

As marijuana enters the mainstream, I would expect these leagues to eliminate their nod-and-a-wink punishments altogether. It’s simply a matter of time. The real issue is the NFL. The sport that most brutally batters its athletes is also the one that cracks down hardest on weed, a natural painkiller.

The NFL welcomes draft-eligible players to its annual scouting combine with a pee test, an introduction to life in the league. Once on a team roster, a player is tested either during the offseason program or in training camp.

One positive result gets you into the program, at which point the NFL can test you as frequently as it wants, with only brief warning.

“I’m out eating dinner in Miami Beach with a friend, his fiancée and her dad,” Moody recounted. “Next thing I know, they’re calling me, I’m in the restaurant, this dude walks in with his little backpack and his ID badge. He twists his little glasses down (on his nose), like, ‘You know who I am.’”

A second positive test and an NFL player is fined three weeks’ pay. A third positive means another fine. The next lands you a four-game suspension — roughly equivalent, the smokers note, to punishment for a domestic violence charge. The next one is 10 games.

It makes no sense. There is ample research demonstrating the calming effects of THC, the anti-inflammatory benefits of CBD and the potential impact of cannabis on degenerative brain conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

And it’s hard to imagine a class of men in greater need of mental and physical soothing than NFL players. If weed is affecting their on-field performance, or their ability to function as citizens, there are ways to handle that.

It’s time to end the crackdown of random testing. The NFL has an opiate problem and a head-injury problem and a labor-management problem. It has never had a weed problem.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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