Synthetic marijuana is an ugly drug. It doesn’t mellow a person out or make them want to listen to jam bands in tie-dye T-shirts. Quite the opposite, actually: Synthetic marijuana can make its users act erratically; it can increase their anxiety, cause hallucinations and, in the case of New England Patriots player Chandler Jones, it allegedly can lead you to run shirtless into a Massachusetts police station like a crazy person and get you checked into the hospital.
Jones’s alleged experience with the drug ended peacefully; however, it doesn’t always work out that way. Synthetic marijuana, which gives its users a high off of simulated cannabinoids meant to mimic the effects of THC, the naturally occurring compound in the cannabis plant, doesn’t have a long history. Yet in the few years it’s been in existence since it was invented by an ex-Clemson professor, it’s made an indelible mark in athletics — both professionally and in college.
In 2010, before the NCAA and many colleges required student-athletes be tested for the drug, a handful of Auburn football players blamed chronic use of synthetic marijuana for why they invaded a home and committed armed robbery. Of those players, Antonio Goodwin was convicted in June 2012 and sentenced to 15 years in jail. Mike McNeil, Shaun Kitchens and Dakota Mosley pleaded guilty in 2013; each was sentenced to three years in jail. All players were part of the 2010 national championship team.
The university was also roundly criticized after a damning ESPN report suggested administrators knew of the rampant use of synthetic marijuana by the players but did nothing to stop it.
Another example: The drug led to the death of a 19-year-old basketball player at Anderson (S.C.) University in 2011, according to city coroners. Redshirt freshman Lamar Jack collapsed during a Friday morning practice before being rushed to the hospital where he later died.
“It has a chemical name of JWH-018,” coroner Greg Shore said (via WYFF-TV), citing the compounds scientific name. He added that Jack’s family hoped “to get the word out to make sure other families don’t go through what his family has gone through.”
Several colleges and the NCAA did get the message. In 2011, more schools began implementing their own testing for the substance and the NCAA officially began testing for synthetic marijuana. It wasn’t until 2013, however, that the NCAA implemented a testing protocol. The NCAA’s protocol follows that set up by the World Anti-Doping Agency lab testing standard for level of detection.
Testing for the substance, however, has not been a cure-all, just as it’s not with other drugs, including marijuana.
In December, Fox Sports’ Clay Travis reported standout Ole Miss football player Robert Nkemdiche had synthetic marijuana in his system when he apparently hallucinated, busted out a window and fell over 15 feet from the ledge while staying in a hotel in Atlanta. Nkemdiche, who suffered minor injuries in the incident, denies ever taking the drug, but Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze ended up suspending the player from the Sugar Bowl, which was to be his final game with the team. Police also found regular marijuana in Nkemdiche’s hotel room.
If there’s one silver lining, it’s that synthetic marijuana use is still relatively rare among college student-athletes, says Frank Uryasz, president of the National Center for Drug Free Sport. The organization manages the testing program for the NCAA, as well as other college and professional sports leagues.
“We’ve not seen very many positives,” Uryasz told The Washington Post on Thursday, referring to not just NCAA testing but all of Drug Free Sport’s college clients, which include two- and four-year colleges and universities. “The positive rate was .03 in 2014,” a number he called “significantly” lower than positive rates for regular marijuana use.
A 2014 NCAA study that asked student-athletes to self-report about their behavior backs those statistics up. Nearly 22 percent of survey respondents said they had used regular marijuana in the last 12 months. Just 1.6 percent of respondents reported they used synthetic marijuana in the same time period.
The NFL, which is also a client of Drug Free Sport, can’t provide such data, though, because it doesn’t currently test for synthetic marijuana. Unlike college-level sports, for the NFL to change its testing protocol, it would have to negotiate with the players’ union. Neither organization would comment to The Washington Post about whether they’re discussing adding synthetic marijuana to its banned substance list.
Jones, meanwhile, is the second professional football player to find himself making headlines for his alleged use of the substance. In November 2013, Kellen Winslow, then a tight end on the New York Jets, was arrested for possession of synthetic marijuana in New Jersey. Police found the substance in his car after a woman reported spotting Winslow masturbating in his car in a Target parking lot.
Winslow was not found guilty of the charge and he was never punished by the NFL, however, the incident marked the likely end of his 10-year NFL career. At the end of the season, the Jets chose not to re-sign him.
Jones will probably not see any punishment over his incident. While synthetic marijuana is illegal in Massachusetts, Jones has not admitted to using the chemical compound and he has not been charged with any crime over the matter. Under the NFL’s substance abuse policy, a player would have to be criminally charged with an illegal substance to be eligible for punishment under its substance abuse policy since the drug is not included on its official banned substances list.
Jones likely realizes how lucky he is.
“I made a pretty stupid mistake this weekend,” Jones said (via Yahoo Sports) on Thursday. “I feel the need to apologize to everyone. … I want to apologize to all the fans. … Like I said, I made a stupid mistake.”
Correction: An original version of this article misstated the chemical compound in synthetic marijuana that gives its users a high.