Shane Ray (Missouri) poses with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected as the No. 23 overall pick in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
(Photo: Dennis Wierzbicki, USA TODAY Sports)
May 15, 2015
USA Today - ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It was almost too juicy a story line to be true.
Shane Ray, the NFL prospect cited for marijuana possession just days before the draft, gets picked by the Denver Broncos, of all teams, and heads to Colorado, home to many of America's most liberal marijuana laws.
It was a tale that set social media ablaze with quips about Ray's arrival in Denver being "dope" along with references to the fact that since January 2014, Coloradans can legally purchase up to an ounce of marijuana at dispensaries across the state.
It is very likely that had Ray been pulled over for a traffic violation on Interstate 70 in Colorado — rather than some 600 miles east on the same highway in Missouri — he would have received just a traffic ticket. Then maybe he wouldn't have dropped from the draft's top 10 into John Elway's waiting arms at pick No. 23.
Ray heard many of the jokes, saw his Twitter mentions explode — he didn't read most of them, he says — and filtered through text messages from buddies. He couldn't help but laugh a few days later when asked about the preponderance of weed yucks at his expense.
"I've seen all the memes and the jokes and stuff, but it really doesn't faze me," Ray said. "It would be different if I had a serious history of issues with marijuana and stuff like that, but I don't. And for that, I just look at it as just jokes, people just finding something to pick at me at.
"I really don't look at all those things, but of course, a couple of my friends sent me some of them that were pretty funny."
There is an assumption that by arriving in Colorado, a player like Ray, who admitted to one failed marijuana test early in his college career at Missouri but no other instances before his April 27 citation, would be tempted to legally purchase and smoke weed.
That's why Broncos coach Gary Kubiak's instructions to his players about marijuana is the same now that he's coaching in Denver as it was when he was coaching in Houston or Baltimore: Just don't do it.
"My message is the same regardless," Kubiak said. "I think we all understand the rules of the league and what we expect from a team standpoint."
Indeed, in the years since Colorado voters passed the bill to legalize marijuana sales and possession, the Broncos have not found themselves riddled with player violations. Outside linebacker Von Miller served a six-game suspension in 2013 for a second violation — he had a positive test as a rookie in 2013 — but he was penalty was for trying to manipulate a sample, not another positive test.
There have been marijuana-related issues elsewhere in the league. But in Denver and Seattle — Washington state also legalized marijuana in 2014 — no players were suspended for marijuana last year. The two Broncoswho served suspensions in 2014 were punished for alcohol (kicker Matt Prater) and amphetamines (receiver Wes Welker).
Denver defensive end Malik Jackson, who lives in Los Angeles during the offseason, said his buddies will occasionally ask him about the marijuana laws in Colorado. He, too, will hear jokes from time to time.
Once Ray is settled here, he probably will, too.
"They'll be like, 'Oh, you can just go to the store and get it? You can just smoke on the streets?
' I'm like, 'Man, I don't know about that.' I get drug tested. I've passed every test," Jackson said.
"As far as (Ray's) personal life, as far as the marijuana and stuff, he knows better than that, so I don't have to get into that."
Jackson is confident that Ray will be stepping into a situation with good mentors. Miller serves as an example of an elite player who erred, more than once, and paid for those mistakes. In veteran pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, Ray can find a willing mentor.
"Anytime he doesn't want to be in that lifestyle, (Ware) can tell him about never having been in it, how you can make a lot of money if you just keep your nose clean. I think he'll be fine. He's in good hands," Jackson said.
But the attention Ray's citation received and the subsequent headlines his arrival in Denver generated only help highlight a growing discrepancy between the NFL's stance on marijuana and society's, said Mason Tvert, a Denver-based marijuana policy reform advocate.
"The NFL has no compelling interest in players' marijuana use off the job. They are really wasting their time. They should be focused on preventing cheating and preventing behaviors that result in harm to the players or others. Simply using marijuana responsibly doesn't qualify as that,
" Tvert said.
Tvert's Marijuana Policy Project has long been critical of the NFL's drug policies, dating back to at least 2007 when it erected billboards in Denver advocating for former NFL running back Ricky Williams to sign with the Broncos after serving a suspension for marijuana use.
More recently, the organization paid for billboards near the Super Bowl in New Jersey last year that argued marijuana usage was safer choice for players than drinking alcohol.
"What the problem is right now for the NFL, other than cheating quarterbacks, is this issue with violence — violence and brain damage. And marijuana does not really contribute to either, whereas alcohol, one of the biggest sponsors of the NFL, does," Tvert said.
The Broncos and, to some extent, the Seahawks might not be the only subject of weed jokes for long. The District of Columbia has now legalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana as well as the ability for individuals to grow their own. Voters in Oregon and Alaska have already approved laws similar to those in Colorado and Washington state that will take effect next year.
In 2016, several states — most notably California (currently home to three NFL teams) and Massachusetts (home to one) — are expected to present similar laws to voters.