The news that Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive back Jonathan Hefney is facing charges for marijuana possession back in South Carolina is controversial -- in part because of the veteran defender's status and personal baggage -- but not exactly earth-shattering, given the relationship between the CFL and pot.
In a league where no team plays on natural grass, marijuana has been a headline-generating issue for more than four decades in Canada. The CFL has long been a haven for NFL players -- most recently Ricky Williams in Toronto and Onterrio Smith in Winnipeg -- who have repeatedly failed drug tests in the U.S., where marijuana is considered a banned substance. (The CFL tests for performance-enhancing drugs, but not recreational drugs, including marijuana.)
Smith became infamous in 2005 when airport security at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport caught him carrying dried urine and a "Whizzinator" -- a kit designed to mask drug tests. In 2006, Smith was invited to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers training camp, but arrived 20 pounds overweight (sans Whizzinator) and was quickly released.
Williams, meanwhile, became a cause-c©l®bre in the Big Smoke after smoking his way out of a gig with the Miami Dolphins in 2005. Williams suited up for the Argos the same year as Smith was brought in by the Bombers, giving every impression the CFL had morphed into the Cannabis Forever League.
Although evidence is anecdotal, there is no denying a substantial number of CFL players have gone to pot.
"In the NFL, the most common drug problem is performance-enhancing drugs," one former CFL head office executive told the Free Press on condition of anonymity. "In the CFL, the most common drug is marijuana.
"No one would have had hard data," the source added. "Everybody would have had one or two guys for sure they knew were doing something. But it was more assumed or suspected. I wouldn't say it was wide-open. It was more 'understood.' "
'If you're going
to drop Jonathan Hefney (above) because you think
he smokes pot...
you've got a situation on your hands. If you cut everybody who smokes pot, you're going to have to scour every nook and cranny for players. And good players, too'
Stories abound of players -- star players, mind you -- who regularly smoked a blunt in the Bombers parking lot before team meetings. Some players would ask for gum before interviews.
"Sometimes a player would sneak out to his car to smoke a joint," one longtime Bombers employee said, echoing a story from multiple sources. "That was his routine."
But the Bombers' marijuana history dates back as far as punter Bernie Ruoff, who was unceremoniously kicked off the team in 1979 after getting busted for pot possession. Ruoff was later convicted of the offence and given a conditional discharge. However, his discharge from the community-owned club was permanent.
Ruoff was replaced by a young quarterback/kicker from Acadia named Bob Cameron, who proceeded to don the Blue and Gold for the next 23 seasons. "Ben Johnson and I have something in common," Cameron likes to joke. "We both owe our career to drugs."
Even prior to Ruoff's ouster, Bombers star running back Mack Herron, who led the league in rushing in 1972, was caught by police trying to toss a small amount of marijuana out of his East Kildonan apartment that off-season. Herron was released and blackballed by the league. He spent the next two years in the NFL. Then Herron spent much of the next several years in jail, mostly for drug convictions.
But what was once isolated marijuana use has evolved into a more noticeable indulgence.
In his 17-plus seasons with the Bombers, place-kicker Troy Westwood remembered post-practice sessions where players drained beer by the tub. The scene changed almost overnight, Westwood said. Beer consumption dropped and pot consumption increased. "There was a fundamental shift from beer to marijuana," he said. "It was amazing."
For the record, Westwood never partook. "I tried it when I was younger," he said. "It never did anything for me."
Westwood, in his later years with the club, also never went foraging for nightlife with younger players. But he suggested the increased use of recreational drugs in the league mirrors North American society.
In 2011, an expansive drug study funded by Health Canada found half of Grade 10 students have used marijuana at least once, up from one-third in 1990 -- making Canadian teens the world's No. 1 pot smokers. The same study found alcohol use and drunkenness dropped slightly among youths 12 to 17 years old.
In the U.S., the rate of eighth-graders saying they have used an illicit drug in the past year jumped to 16 per cent from the previous year's 14.5 per cent, with daily marijuana use up in all grades surveyed, according to the 2010 Monitoring the Future Survey. The study also found while 21.4 per cent of high school seniors used marijuana in the past 30 days, only 19.2 per cent smoked cigarettes.
In addition, there are now 14 states (not South Carolina, unfortunately for Hefney) that have passed decriminalization laws. Marijuana is now legal in Colorado and Washington state.
"I think what happens in the CFL locker-room is reflective of what's happening in society," said Westwood, who co-hosts The Big Show on TSN 1290. "I think young people are as likely to smoke (pot) as drink these days. I think we live in a day and age right now where (marijuana) is just barely illegal the way cigarettes are barely legal."
Westwood stressed he wasn't endorsing marijuana, but he believes Bombers GM Joe Mack shouldn't release Hefney -- as some fans and commentators have debated -- merely based on the drug charges.
"You've got your head in the sand if you don't think marijuana is remarkably common," Westwood added. "I know this: The football club deals with a lot of situations that are outside the box. I think this would be middle-of-the-road.
"If you're going to drop Jonathan Hefney because you think he smokes pot... you've got a situation on your hands. If you cut everybody who smokes pot, you're going to have to scour every nook and cranny for players. And good players, too."
At a press conference this week to address Hefney's drug charges, Mack said the club would stand by their player... at least, for now.
"It's different than some other altercations that occur," Mack said. "It's a societal issue. It's really not much of a factor, if any at all."
However, Mack's position offended former Bombers offensive lineman Sandy Annunziata, who charged in a column on Yahoo Sports titled "A Blind, Black and Blue Eye for Blue Bombers" that the Winnipeg GM "failed miserably" in dealing with Hefney.
"All CFL teams, including the Bombers, are community-minded," Annunziata wrote. "Players are invited to events, functions and schools in order to inspire, deliver positive messages, encourage health and fitness, and hopefully cultivate new fans. I myself attended many, many functions, during my playing days. The audience was almost always young, impressionable minds, eager to meet a pro football player. And it's in this regard Mack has lost not only his sense of 'community-owned' reality, but credibility as a respected leader of the Bombers brand. I understand the allegiance shown to a valued team member, but not at the expense of an organization's reputation."
Countered another former Bomber, who played with Annunziata: "They're trying to make it a big deal, but it's not a big deal. It's not good, no question. But I don't know if this rises to a major-league issue."
What does the CFL head office have to say?
"We treat these matters on a case-by-case basis, and usually allow our teams to take the lead with their employees," offered league spokesman Jamie Dykstra in an email to the Free Press. "In the recent case of Jonathan Hefney, the matter is before the courts, the Bombers have indicated they do not plan to act at this time, and we will respect the legal process by not commenting at this time.
"Our league-wide drug policy provides for random testing of players for a sweeping number of performance-enhancing drugs. It does not test for recreational drugs, including marijuana. When that policy was launched in 2010, we said it is our responsibility to protect the integrity of our game."
There are a number of reasons cited for marijuana use in the CFL, from pain management to sheer boredom to stress relief. But look no further than the nearest college campus and house party to determine if the spread of weed is isolated to a professional football locker-room.
"It exists because it exists in society. It's a reflection, not a trend-setter," the CFL source said. "I never heard any discussion in a coach's meetings where someone said, 'This is a problem.' It's more the coaching staff and GM worried about a player's character and behaviour. To some extent, they're accepting. But I'm sure if they thought there was a bigger problem, they would deal with it."