The N.B.A.'s Drug Program Is Nothing a Masquerade

The N.B.A.'s Drug Program Is Nothing a Masquerade
Posted by FoM on October 31, 1999 at 18:01:03 PT
By Armen Keteyian
Source: New York Times
For a few festive hours Sunday night, millions of children and adults will happily dress up or don masks and pretend to be something or someone they are not. 
On Tuesday, the National Basketball Association's regular season will open for the 53d time, while a majority of players begin their 82-game version of All Hallows' E'en, dressing up as entertainers and role models, masking their off-court dependence on a post-game treat of choice: smoking a joint. The trick was always not getting caught, a rather simple matter given the fact that since the league's original antidrug program debuted back in 1984, the union put up a stoned wall against marijuana testing. While the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the United States Olympic Committee all tested for the main human urinary metabolite of marijuana, the N.B.A. never did. Over time, drug-treatment experts declared that the league's drug program, trumpeted by Commissioner David Stern and others for its vision and toughness, was far more puff than policy, designed to treat public relations problems, not drug problems -- as it turned out, with good reason. The league was basically going up in smoke, a clear-eyed conclusion my co-authors, Harvey Araton, a columnist for The New York Times, and Martin F. Dardis of Sports Illustrated, and I came to three years ago while reporting "Money Players," a book about the N.B.A. under Stern. "If they tested for marijuana," the former Phoenix Suns forward Richard Dumas told me then, "there would probably be no N.B.A." While pot smoking may not be that pervasive today, there is little doubt that N.B.A. players have long enjoyed a close relationship with their little buds. Witness the celebrated marijuana cases involving Allen Iverson, Isaiah Rider, Chris Webber and Marcus Camby. In the wake of those cases, the players association -- in one of the biggest cards played during the six-month collective bargaining battle that culminated last winter -- agreed to allow marijuana testing for all players, coaches and courtside personnel this season. In a stunning admission, the players association's director, Billy Hunter, informed me that his union had traded off the testing of players for marijuana for bigger issues. "If we were able to resolve other issues, that became part of it," said Hunter. "We traded it off for something more important. Right now, I don't quite remember what." What Hunter clearly remembered was the public backlash after last year's 204-day N.B.A. lockout. "When all is said and done we did what we had to do to help enhance the image of our players," he said. "The appearance was that many of them engaged in the use of marijuana. The N.B.A. had been pleading or crying for an expanded drug program for years, so we took the high road and acquiesced. It's one of the things you do. But so much was made of it in public, I still feel like it was a ruse." Through a purple haze, you can almost see Hunter's point. Unlike cocaine or heroin -- long banned by the league -- marijuana is a far more socially accepted drug, its performance-enhancing qualities dubious at best. "We're way up in the air on that issue," conceded Wade Exum, director of the U.S.O.C.'s drug-control program. Still, the fact is, the Federal Government and many companies screen for marijuana before employment, so why not a league that sells, sells, sells a pristine image to the public? "Look, like it or not," said a top N.B.A. spokesman, Brian McIntyre, "kids look up to us. This is the right thing to do." Yes, on the surface the N.B.A. has done exactly that. The right thing. Its new and improved drug program answers all the easy questions. Confidentiality? You bet. Testing levels? The exact same ones from the National Institute for Drug Abuse for Federal employees, the N.F.L. and U.S.O.C. Random testing? Yes sir, both rookies and veterans. Need help? Step right up, thanks to a voluntary treatment program. But dig a little deeper and what you see is smoke and mirrors. On Oct. 20, for example, Mike Wise, a basketball writer for The Times, raised troubling concerns about the confidentiality quotient when he reported that "a core provision of the drug testing effort had been violated and the entire program called into question" because a reporter had learned that about a half-dozen players tested positive for pot earlier this month during the first week of tests. Spend some time reading the fine print in the new collective bargaining agreement, then consult a few of this country's leading drug testing experts, and concern about the effectiveness of the N.B.A.'s marijuana program only increases. David Black, president of Aegis Sciences, which administers drug tests for many National Collegiate Athletic Association schools and the Tennessee prison system, said: "To get caught, you either have to be extremely stupid or really dependent on the drug." The fine print? As laid out in the N.B.A.'s collective bargaining agreement, "a First-Year Player may be required to undergo testing for Prohibited Substances at any time," but "no more than one (1) time during regular training camp" and "no more than three (3) times during the then- current Regular Season." Veterans face random testing "no more than one (1) time each Season" or "during the first 15 days after such a player reports to his Team." In case you missed it, the operative word here is may, as in "may be required to undergo testing." Whereas the N.F.L. agreement states players "will be tested at least once" before the season, not so in the N.B.A., despite Hunter's assurance. "It may be couched in terms of may" he said, "but I can tell you the N.B.A. intends to exercise that right." Still, if someone, perish the thought, decides they don't want to test the No. 1 draft pick or Mr. Big Stuff, it's not mandatory. And with the season about to start, I can assure you a veteran would have to fire one up on the bench before the league's "reasonable cause" provision kicks in. Next, take a closer look at the league's acceptable levels of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the major active ingredient in marijuana. According to two drug-testing experts, at 15 nanograms per milliliter of urine, they're either so "ridiculous" as to raise serious legal questions, or so "forgiving" as to miss 50-60 percent of those smoking pot. "One can reach that level by simply being in a room, through passive inhalation," said Dr. R. Craig Kammerer, who set up the 1984 Olympic drug lab in Los Angeles. "Forty-eight hours after inhaling passive smoke you could come up positive. It's very conservative. To me, I'd like to see the cutoff considerably higher, screening and confirmation at 50." "If you're a pot smoker, you've got to like that test," countered Black, who advocates a "zero tolerance" level of 5 nanograms per milliliter. "The current drug testing programs under way in the United States are programs drug users should just love, the thresholds are so high." Beyond the highs and lows, the wills or mays, if the N.B.A.'s doobie brothers want to roll the dice (or something else), it's quite possible they'll never get caught, even if somebody's looking. For one thing, both Black and Kammerer report that marijuana remains stored in the fat cells of a casual user just five to seven days, far from the 30-45 days so often reported. In the N.B.A., it's even less. "The players are so lean and fit, it's much less likely the THC will get stored as fat," Kammerer said. Finally, if you're desperate, there's a cornucopia of products now available to help you beat the test. They go by the names of Carbo Clean, Fast Flush Caps, Ready Clean and The Wizard. Unbelievably, they're available for the asking at your local nutrition store or over the Internet. Purportedly, they detoxify your body, in essence, diluting your urine, adjusting the acidity to prevent the drug from getting into the urine. That's the kind of pot culture we live in now. Industries built up around beating Federally mandated drug tests, so truck drivers or police officers can cop a buzz on the beat. Anti-drug programs as public relations, traded away for a little public sympathy, a few more bucks, not worth the papers they're written on. Armen Keteyian, the author of eight books, is an Emmy award-winning reporter for CBS and HBO Sports. October 31, 1999Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company Related Articles:NBA Resumes Drug Testing After Six-Day Hiatus - 10/20/99  Report: NBA Suspends Drug Testing - 10/20/99 
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