Pubdate: Sat, 22 Feb 2003
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Austin American-Statesman
Author: John McFarland


DALLAS -- Associated Press -- Former Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Mark 
Stepnoski considers himself living proof that long-held beliefs about 
marijuana are wrong.

He acknowledges smoking pot for the past 20 years, so, according to 
opponents of the drug, he should be a slothful burnout with blackened 
lungs, a bit of a dim bulb after baking so many brain cells.

Yet Stepnoski is articulate and remains in top physical condition a year 
after finishing a 13-year career as one of the NFL's top centers -- all 
while regularly smoking marijuana, he says.

He feels so strongly that purported facts about marijuana are myths that 
he's dedicated his retirement time to setting the record straight.

Stepnoski, 36, recently "came out" as a weed smoker when he took the 
volunteer position as president of the Texas chapter of the National 
Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. He's bankrolling NORML's 
lobbyist in Austin and has joined the organization's national advisory board.

"Marijuana doesn't prevent you from going out and accomplishing what you 
want to," he said. "Since I was a kid, I wanted to play in the NFL; I 
wanted to be as good as I could; I wanted to play on a winning team; I 
wanted to play professional football. Even though I occasionally used 
marijuana, it never prevented me from ever attaining those goals."

Stepnoski knew how to pass NFL-mandated drug tests. And although he saw 
drugs ruin the lives and careers of teammates, he remains convinced that 
marijuana, used responsibly, is no worse than alcohol.

He says he doesn't want children to use drugs, but he believes he should 
share his views about marijuana.

"We should be truthful to kids and educate them," Stepnoski said.

Among the many areas where Stepnoski and NORML disagree with the government 
are whether money is wasted enforcing marijuana laws and whether the drug 
causes long-term health problems and leads to other drug use.

"It's really kind of sad that someone who could use his role as a role 
model for young children chooses not to use it constructively, but to use 
it for something that has caused devastation for families throughout this 
country," said Jennifer de Vallance, a spokeswoman for the White House 
Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Stepnoski began researching marijuana's effects shortly after he started 
lighting up during his high school days in Erie, Pa.

"I was serious about training and diet and everything else," he said. 
"That's one of the reasons I looked into marijuana so much, because I would 
use it, and it didn't seem to have a negative effect."

He says it never did. Not once does he recall shortness of breath because 
of damaged lungs or lethargy from what drug opponents call amotivational 

"I was in the best shape of any offensive lineman we had on the team," said 
Stepnoski, who won two Super Bowls, made the Pro Bowl five times and helped 
clear the way for many of Emmitt Smith's NFL-record 17,162 rushing yards.

"As far as lethargy, amotivational syndrome is a myth. You can't play in 
the NFL for 13 years if you have amotivational syndrome. You just can't do it."

So how many others do it?

Stepnoski, who played nine seasons with the Cowboys and four with 
Houston/Tennessee, passes on that one.

"If you accept the fact that a sports team is a microcosm of society, then 
yes, drug use exists," he said. "So does alcohol and tobacco use."

The NFL tests players with a clean drug record only once a year -- and 
always during the three months before the season. Stepnoski said that made 
passing the tests a breeze.

"You just quit until you take the test, and that's it; you're done," he 
said. "It wasn't hard to quit because it's not addictive. I didn't cheat. I 
went in and took the test. I was by the book, so people shouldn't get mad 
and think I faked somebody out."

Drug use among some of Stepnoski's Dallas teammates has been 
well-documented. The extreme cases include fellow linemen Mark Tuinei dying 
of an overdose in 1999 and Nate Newton recently being incarcerated after 
convictions for transporting large amounts of marijuana.

Stepnoski said it's not fair to lump him in with them.

Several prominent teammates from the 1990s Cowboys declined to discuss 
Stepnoski's new role or didn't return calls seeking comment.

They have talked to Stepnoski, though, and he says the feedback has been 

"I've not had one guy be critical of what I'm doing," he said. "I'm sure 
some of them may feel that way but just don't voice their opinions."

The NFL had no comment either, except to stand behind its testing policy.

"It's somewhat more random than knowing the exact date," league spokesman 
Greg Aiello said. "We have the strongest and most comprehensive drug policy 
in sports."

Stepnoski got started with NORML during his playing days by making 
donations to receive literature. He was asked to be more involved but knew 
it was a bad idea.

"It would have been such a huge headache for me and for my teammates and my 
coaches that I'd have to be crazy to do it," said Stepnoski, who agreed to 
step up his involvement after the 2001 season.

Although legalization is the ultimate goal, NORML's focus in Texas is on 
persuading the Legislature to downgrade possession from a Class B to a 
Class C misdemeanor. That would make it about as damaging legally as a 
speeding ticket.

Measures to legalize marijuana for medical reasons didn't even get out of 
committee for a full vote in the Texas House the past two sessions. And 
voters in November defeated marijuana law reform measures in three states: 
Nevada, South Dakota and Arizona.

Even so, Stepnoski said he's confident.

"I knew this was going to be rough waters occasionally, at least publicly," 
he said. "But again, I don't feel deterred because I have the truth on my 
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens