WITH NO POLICY, IS NBA GOING TO POT?

Let me give you the straight dope on the NBA’s marijuana policy: There is no policy.

You heard me. Under NBA rules, if a player wants to puff a joint, then go out and play a game, there is nothing to stop him. Nothing, of course, except that it’s against the law in most places. But if the player can beat that, the league has no punishment. It won’t even test him.

This is astounding. In a sport that pays for and depends on maximum physical performance, there is no testing for marijuana? No penalties for being arrested for possession?

Nope. And here’s the kicker: According to a recent New York Times article, nearly 70 percent of NBA players use marijuana.

And you thought they got high only for rebounds.

Seventy percent? Who’s coaching these guys. Cheech and Chong? Where’s the next expansion franchise — Bogota? When they said “in your face,” I didn’t know they meant smoke. Seventy percent? Can that be right?

Well, there were three cases this summer alone involving NBA players and marijuana — Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby and Isaiah Rider. And those are just the players who were arrested. Several of the active players interviewed for the Times survey — including Utah’s Karl Malone and Orlando’s Derek Harper — admit the 70 percent figure could well be accurate.

Geez. I knew players rode in buses. I didn’t know it was Willie Nelson’s bus.

“You don’t know if guys are under the influence when they’re playing,” said Harper. “It’s scary.”

Especially for commissioner David Stern, who has cultivated the image of his NBA more carefully than a French farmer cultivates his truffles. Now Stern has a fight on his hands. He wants some kind of pot rules. And, simply put, the players’ union doesn’t want him pokin’ into their tokin’.

Stern has suggested modifying the league’s existing substance abuse policy — which hasn’t been changed in 14 years — to include marijuana. He wants a five-game suspension for first-time offenders testing positive or being arrested for possession.

A five-game suspension.

And you know what the players’ union says?

“Too harsh.”

Are they talking about the punishment or the blend?

Players’ union is blowing smoke

“I don’t intend to impose on our players more than what is imposed on people in society,” said Billy Hunter, executive director of the players’ association.

Hmm. Somebody needs to hand Hunter a map to the real world. Out here in
“society” there are many workplaces where you get tested as a matter of course. (Unlike the NBA, where even for the drugs that are banned, you can’t test a player simply because his behavior is suspicious; you need strong suggestion of drug use, and even then you must ask an arbitrator before you can test.)

And out here in “society,” if you fail even a single marijuana test, it can cost you your job. Five games? Too harsh? If anything, the penalties for dope should be more harsh in sports, because the business relies on peak physical performance. You don’t allow airline pilots with vision problems. You don’t allow divers who can’t swim. How can the NBA not care if a player gets high before a game?

Now, granted, I don’t think many players do this — as witnessed by the way they argue with referees. Nobody smoking pot can be that aggressive.

But rules are designed for worst-case scenarios, and at $50 or $100 a ticket, fans have the right to expect players to be focused on the game, not waiting for halftime to grab some munchies.

Richard Dumas, a former Phoenix Sun who was banned from the league for drug use, told the Times: “Almost everyone does it…. If they tested for pot, there would be no league.”

Hmm. Maybe that’s why they don’t test.

What about the fans’ rights?

Now, I am not here to preach about marijuana use. I leave that to wise, thoughtful, educated experts, like Woody Harrelson.

All I’m saying is, at the moment, marijuana is illegal pretty much everywhere. And a league that tries to capture a national youth audience should be responsible enough not to contradict the law. Other sports, such as pro football and major league baseball, have marijuana on their banned substances lists. How has basketball escaped it so long?

Is it because, in the past, the NBA haven’t wanted to catch the big names that mandatory testing might catch? Or is it because, in a league that sells itself on star personalities, the players call the shots?

Hunter says marijuana testing could pick on “problem” players. He says teams could use tests “to monitor players they don’t like.”

Yes? And your point is? If the player isn’t using drugs, then no amount of testing should bother him. And if Hunter is suggesting that teams would make up drug results to get rid of a player, then this league has a trust problem much bigger than its dope problem.

Personally, I have a hard time believing that 70 percent of NBA players smoke dope because, if they did, Nike would have gotten into rolling paper by now.
(Slogan: “Just Dooby It.”) But there is clearly a problem here, and fans have the right to be mad that, in theory, on any given night, the team they’re watching could be a Grateful Dead audience.

Stern says the players’ union wants something in return for a marijuana policy. Something economic. This is insane.

Then again, if 70 percent of the league really smokes dope, Stern ought to wait an hour. He’ll be able to get whatever he wants with a carton of Twinkies.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” 7-8 tonight at Waldenbooks in Southgate Mall, Southgate; 7:30-8:30 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble, Northville; and 10:30 a.m.-noon Saturday at Waldenbooks in Somerset Mall, Troy and 1-2 p.m. Saturday at Read Between the Lines, Milford. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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