The NFL Substance Abuse Policy: Breaking it Down

Feb 8, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during a "Handoff to Houston" press conference at the Super Bowl Media Center at Moscone Center-West. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 8, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during a "Handoff to Houston" press conference at the Super Bowl Media Center at Moscone Center-West. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

The NFL Substance Abuse Policy can be a bit tricky to navigate. Here is a simplified breakdown of the policy and how its progressive discipline works.

It’s not just injuries keeping players off the field these days, it’s also suspensions. Since the NFL Substance Abuse Policy is accounting for an increasingly large slice of the Suspension Pie, it’s probably a good idea to take a deeper look into it.

A suspension can make or break a season, a career, or even a team. While actions that unfairly tip the competitive balance in one’s favor make perfect sense (aka cheating), it’s the off-the-field non-football related offenses that leave many of us scratching our heads.

The NFL and NFLPA understand this and that’s why they developed an objective substance abuse policy to govern the matter. The NFL Substance Abuse Policy is broken down into two main categories:

  1. Performance Enhancing Drugs
  2. Recreational Drugs

Since Performance Enhancing Drugs are largely understood, supported, and less controversial, we’ll focus on the recreational drugs here today.  Just like the NFL Substance Abuse Policy as a whole, the drugs that can be tested for are limited to an agreed upon list, known as the “NFL Drug Panel”. This is limited to:

  1. Benzoylecognine (cocaine) ≥ 150 ng/mL
  2. Delta 9-THC-carboxylic acid (marijuana) ≥ 35 ng/mL
  3. Amphetamine and its analogues ≥ 300 ng/mL
  4. Opiates (total morphine and codeine) ≥ 300 ng/mL
  5. Opioids (e.g., hydrocodone, oxycodone) ≥ 300 ng/mL
  6. Phencyclidine (PCP) ≥ 25 ng/mL
  7. Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (“MDMA”) and its analogues ≥ 200 ng/mL
  8. Alcohol ≥ .06 g/dl (%)

Most recreational drugs fall into these categories and as drugs develop, the NFL and NFLPA adjust the NFL Drug Panel accordingly (during negotiations). Keep in mind, many prescription drugs are in violation of this policy and require league approval (with a prescription) to avoid failed tests on seemingly innocent medications.


All testing is done through urine samples. Two samples are taken, with the first one tested immediately and second one being used to verify. Collection of samples is done by a professional and the results are confidential.

Players and teams are informed of failed tests that have been confirmed by sample B. Other teams and the outside public are not informed of failed tests until a suspension has been issued.

Frequency of Testing

The NFL wastes no time in testing their applicant pool. As soon as the NFL Combine, a player can (and will) be tested. In the preseason as well, each player will be tested. If you pass those, then it’s smooth sailing the rest of the way (provided the player’s contract doesn’t have special stipulations).

But if you fail, you enter the three stage intervention program where the NFL could test you at any time and up to 10 times per month.

Three Stage Intervention Program

  • Stage One

Stage One lasts for up to 90 days. It’s specifically designed to work with the individual player and his specific circumstances. This will include regular testing and could include intervention and/or treatment.

Fines are used as punishments for failed tests and also noncompliance with the specific treatment or plan. If a player completes Stage One without incident, he is released from the Intervention Program. If the player fails tests and/or refuses the treatment plan, then he will advance to Stage Two

  • Stage Two

Stage Two will last either 24 months or two full seasons, whichever is shorter.  Players can be tested, unannounced,  up to 10 times per month. Fines and suspensions are issued for failed tests ranging from two to six games depending on the violation. In Stage Two, marijuana is treated differently than other drugs and carries more leniencies.

Upon completion of Stage Two, the player exits the Intervention Program with a blank slate and is treated like every other player in good standing. If the player fails Stage Two then he advances to Stage Three.

  • Stage Three

Stage Three can last for the player’s entire career. A single offense in Stage Three can result in banishment from the NFL. If the violation is marijuana, the first offence will be for 10 games and banishment will follow for subsequent offences. Reinstatement will be considered by the league commissioner (Roger Goodell) after a year.


As stated earlier, the NFL, as per the CBA, must keep all positive tests confidential. Often times, fans and media can read between the lines when suspensions are issued but the NFL does a very good job staying tight-lipped on substance abuse violations.

More from Sports Dallas Fort-Worth

It’s been said before, people would be shocked to see how many players have spent time in the Intervention Program at one time or another. But without NFL confirmation, it’s really just hearsay.

We do know that as drugs change, laws change, and social tolerance changes, so does the NFL Substance Abuse Policy. Lightening attitudes towards marijuana have been reflective in fines and suspensions.

Hopefully this shed some more light on a fairly murky issue that, sadly, impacts every NFL team.

After reading it in its entirety, it become glaringly apparent that penalties are very easily avoidable by ways other than abstention (just be safe in offseason and preseason and you’re golden). Consequently, it’s difficult to feel bad for anyone who has actually reached the suspension level of discipline.

Next: One Gap vs Two Gap Defense: Explained

I encourage everyone to take a look on their own at the NFL Substance Abuse Policy, here.

Disclaimer: I simplified it as much as possible but since interpretation and paraphrasing were involved, it is possible mistakes were unintentionally made.