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Safety Blitz

Maybe a Steeler can make the case for rational drug policy

Pennsylvania's state legislature is debating a "medical marijuana" bill for children living with condition called Dravet syndrome. Such kids can suffer hundreds of seizures a day, including some so severe as to stop breathing for minutes at a time. Among the few drugs that seem to help is cannabidiol, which can be extracted from marijuana. And a bipartisan group of legislators is supporting a measure, Senate Bill 1182, to ensure those children get it.

Which would be great. But let's face it: When it comes to grabbing headlines, seizure-afflicted children struggling against terrific odds can't compare to a story affecting the Steelers secondary.

Last week, outspoken Steelers safety Ryan Clark dove into the medical-marijuana debate like a [insert turnover-related football metaphor here]. Both of this year's Super Bowl contenders, the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos, represent states that have legalized the recreational use of pot. And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell indicated that the league might someday cease testing for use of the drug — a drug that might help mitigate brain damage from concussions.

"I know guys on my team who smoke," Clark told ESPN. And while the NFL boasts of a rigorous drug-testing regimen, Clark scoffed that "guys understand the ways to get around failing a drug test."

Some of the resultant commentary was as stupid as you'd expect. (Which Steelers smoke? Could Clark's disclosure hurt the team in third-and-long situations?) But what he said is too important to remain on the sports page.

According to Clark, some of his teammates justify their pot use this way: "If I can do this, it keeps me away from maybe Vicodin, it keeps me away from pain prescription drugs and things that guys get addicted to."

This is how fucked-up our "war on drugs" has become. We have guys putting their careers on the line and breaking federal drug laws ... so they won't become drug addicts.

Clark wasn't just making some flimsy excuse. The Centers for Disease Control found that between 1990 and 2008, the number of people dying from drug overdoses rose threefold — and that most of those deaths involved prescription drugs. And football players face special risks.

In a 2010 survey of retired football players by researchers at Washington University, more than half of retirees said they used prescription pain meds while playing ... and nearly three-quarters of those said they misused the drug. Players who admitted prior abuse were three times more likely to be misusing painkillers today, the study found.

But while athletes suffer no shortage of public attention, they're obviously less sympathetic than sick kids. One reason is that, as Clark admitted, they use it not to treat seizures, but rather stress and pain. In other words, they use pot because it makes you feel good ... the very attribute that politicians backing medical-marijuana bills like SB 1182 strive to downplay. (Because the treatment allowed under the bill contains no psychoactive ingredients, "We can't even get you high," insisted one cosponsor last month.)

On some level, we all know how stupid the war on drugs is. We all know that, in a sane world, we'd debate not just whether marijuana is a gateway to heroin, but whether aspirin is a gateway to Oxycontin.

It's almost a boring case to argue in Pittsburgh, whose new mayor once issued a proclamation honoring pot-promoting hip-hopper Wiz Khalifa.  But the insanity continues even here. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report finding that while pot use is fairly consistent across racial groups, black Pittsburghers accounted for two-thirds of the city's pot arrests — even though they make up less than one-third of the population.

Prescription-drug abuse, meanwhile, targets a broader population: Middle-aged and rural Americans are far more likely to OD on painkillers than people in urban areas. A rational drug policy wouldn't just help Clark's fellow Steelers, but the whole Steelers Nation.

Football players, of course, are subjected to a level of physical abuse that few of us will ever undergo. But they aren't the only ones at risk from repeated head traumas. Just look at how we're doing after 40 years of the war on drugs ... and four decades' worth of banging our head against the wall.

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