Outrage over Jonathan Hefney’s marijuana charge is a tempest in a teapot

CFL teams obviously don't want to see their players get in trouble with the law, and that's never a positive thing for the league. However, much of the media response to Winnipeg Blue Bombers' defensive back Jonathan Hefney's legal troubles over a marijuana possession charge has been, as Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." There's a lot of outrage being demonstrated over what, in the grand scheme of things, is a very minor incident.

Yes, marijuana possession's illegal in South Carolina (where Hefney ran into trouble) and other places, but possession of marijuana for personal use is gaining wide acceptance throughout North America. Vermont recently became the 17th state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, and states like Washington and Colorado have gone even further in allowing marijuana use. If Hefney had been in one of those states, he wouldn't have gotten in significant trouble and we wouldn't be having this discussion. Of course, there's something to be said for following the applicable laws where you live, but the point is that this is an offence that's so minor it's not even a criminal matter in 17 of the 50 U.S. states. That doesn't affect what will happen to Hefney (which depends on how the prosecution proceeds and how he responds), but it should moderate the media reaction.

Keep in mind that Hefney isn't exactly accused of doing hideously evil things here. While smoking marijuana can still carry significant health risks, there's ample scientific evidence that it's less dangerous than tobacco, which is legal. There's also a growing body of thought that medical marijuana should be considered as a treatment option in football and other sports, as it has several advantages over the problematic traditional painkillers. Sports On Earth's Patrick Hruby did a great job of outlining that case in April:

[Drug Policy Alliance national policy manager Amanda] Reiman knows dispensaries. Also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Social Welfare, she moved from Chicago to Berkeley in 2002 to pursue a doctoral degree. Struck by the area's embrace of medical marijuana, she wrote her dissertation on the topic -- spending an entire summer visiting seven different dispensaries, surveying and interviewing patients.

"It opened my eyes," she says. "A lot of people were consciously using marijuana for pain instead of prescription drugs. They kept saying, 'I don't think I'll get addicted to this like my Vicodin. I'm not worried about overdosing like with my Oxycontin.' I probed further and they were even using it as a substitute for alcohol. The side effects were a lot less."...

[A] 1999 Institute of Medicine study on medical marijuana -- a report funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, hardly a bunch of longhaired hippies -- found that marijuana has pain-alleviating properties. Two years ago, the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology published a review of 18 randomized controlled trials of cannabis; in 15 of the trials, the drug proved "safe and modestly effective" for treating neuropathic pain, with "no serious adverse effects" and "preliminary evidence of efficacy in fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis." Oh, and patients mostly slept better, too -- which just happens to be a crucial component of athletic recovery from injury and physical strain.

The debate on whether marijuana should be used for medical purposes in football is unlikely to see any resolution any time soon, as right now, most leagues' drug testing policies (including the CFL's) ban it. However, marijuana is hardly performance-enhancing (unless you consider pain relief performance enhancement, in which case you probably want to throw out a lot of football medical supplies), and possession of small amounts of it really isn't a big deal.

The "Hefney's being a bad role model" argument is also flawed. First off, just because someone plays a sport well shouldn't make them a hero. There are plenty of CFL players who do fantastic community work off the field, and that's what's really worthy of looking up to: there's no problem with calling them role models. That doesn't mean that all CFL players are worthy of emulation, though. Moreover, "being a role model" isn't really their job: it's to play football. Those who go above and beyond that by doing community work deserve tons of plaudits, but it's worth noting that "being a role model" is highly unlikely to keep you on a CFL roster. Being an effective football player is much more important to your survival chances.

That's not to say that everything is permissible. There have been plenty of past cases of CFL players whose legal troubles have been so significant that they were no longer worth keeping around, from Yonus Davis being charged with involvement in a ecstasy-smuggling ring to Adam Braidwood's litany of legal issues (including kidnapping charges). However, by and large this league is willing to forgive: for example, see the case of linebacker/long-snapper Jordan Matechuk, who the Bombers brought back to the league after he was busted at the U.S. border with steroids and other drugs (Matechuk is now with the Roughriders). That willingness to offer chances at redemption is a good thing. There are certain offences such as those of Braidwood and Davis that are beyond the pale and should lead CFL teams to cut ties with players, but what Hefney is accused of is nowhere near that level.

It's interesting to note that Hefney's situation seems to be drawing much more scathing media criticism than Odell Willis' DUI charge last year or Kory Sheets' domestic violence charge this year. Those are two situations that directly imperil others, unlike possession of a small amount of marijuana. It's unclear if Hefney was even going to use the marijuana, too: he's maintained that it wasn't his. Regardless, there's a significant difference between smoking marijuana and driving drunk or committing domestic violence, and the latter two seem far more problematic from this standpoint. From this corner, Bombers' GM Joe Mack deserves credit for thus far refusing to give into media pressure and punish Hefney over a relatively minor offence. He won't be praised in every corner, but from this perspective, he's made the right call.