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The Auburn Drug Story Explained

ESPN did a terrible job of explaining its story on Auburn and synthetic marijuana usage, so here's a shot at doing it for them.

Michael Chang

Shaun Assael did a pretty poor job of making his case as to why we should care about the usage of synthetic marijuana, or "spice", at Auburn in his report for It's a badly summarized version of his much longer article for ESPN the Magazine, and that expanded piece does a better job of it.

It's still not great, and all things considered, Assael may still be holding Auburn to an unfairly high level of accountability here. SBN's Jason Kirk makes that case pretty strongly right here.

I am still not 100% sure what to think, but I do think I can explain Assael's side better than he actually did. If this is too long, just skip down to the "In Conclusion" section at the end.

1. Synthetic marijuana is worse than regular marijuana.

This much is true. It is worse. Here's some of what Assael wrote on it:

The problem was that no two batches of this "synthetic marijuana" were exactly the same. One group of leaves could be sprayed with higher concentrations of JWH [the synthetic marijuana compound] than another, rendering it potentially life-threatening. ...

In the U.S., the American Association of Poison Control Centers found itself fielding calls from emergency room physicians who had no idea what was causing the strange, alarming symptoms they were suddenly confronting. By 2010, 11,406 people nationwide were admitted to emergency rooms with those signs.

"If you take the worst effects of meth, crack and LSD, that's what they were seeing," says Dr. Mark Ryan, head of the Louisiana Poison Control Center. "These people were paranoid, psychotic. For lack of a better term, they were out of their minds."

It sounds pretty bad. With that said, every batch doesn't turn people into monsters. It's also unclear to me what information on it was widely known in 2010. That stat on people being sent to the ER in 2010 obviously could not have come out during the year 2010, for instance.

Assael reports that Auburn's director of sports medicine Joseph Petrone read in August of 2010 a newspaper article about the Alabama legislature banning possession of the JWH chemical compound, made 600 copies of the article, and passed one out to every Auburn athlete. That suggests that he was being proactive. Assael does not tell us which article it was or what else was in it, so we have no way of knowing if it merely said that possession of the stuff was banned or if it went into how harmful it is.

2. Auburn knew there was a synthetic marijuana problem but didn't do all it could to curb it.

This is the key. This is the argument that the whole piece rests on. If you don't buy this, then the entire case against Auburn falls apart. So naturally, Assael mentions the key fact for it once in passing and doesn't revisit it later. Here's what he said:

An assistant coach on that 2010 squad, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Mag in February that Chizik addressed it in a midseason staff meeting: "He said, 'We have to get our arms around this thing,'" the coach says. "He was certainly ahead of me in terms of knowledge." Chizik also called a meeting to warn players, saying anyone who was caught using synthetic marijuana would be kicked off the team.

Despite the coach's lecture, Petrone, the sports medicine director, admitted to The Mag this March that he never went to a single student-athlete in search of information and none came to him. Nor was he aware that Redwood Toxicology Laboratory, a drug-testing lab in Santa Rosa, Calif., had widely announced in July 2010, a month before he posted the article on every locker, that it had the first urine test to detect JWH-018.

Instead, Petrone approached Auburn's own drug-testing vendor, Aegis Labs, located in Petrone's hometown of Nashville, Tenn., to ask for its help in creating a test. According to Petrone, Aegis responded with a time frame of three to six months.

Emphasis mine.

This is it right here. We have an assistant coach saying that Chizik and the rest of the coaching staff knew that this new drug existed, that it was bad to some degree, and that there was a problem with the drug in the team. A test for it did exist at the time as well. The implication is that Auburn negligently didn't explore all of the options for combatting synthetic marijuana when Aegis Labs told the school that it didn't have a test for it yet.

3. Auburn coaches created an atmosphere that conveyed the message that it was OK to do synthetic marijuana.

The coaching staff did have some knowledge that players were doing spice during the 2010 season. That anonymous assistant coach attests to it:

An assistant coach on that 2010 squad, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Mag in February that Chizik ... called a meeting to warn players, saying anyone who was caught using synthetic marijuana would be kicked off the team.

as does Antonio Goodwin:

"It wasn't hard to find out we were all smoking," [Goodwin] says. "It got to the point where players were showing up to the meetings high and the performance at practice wasn't as good as it was at the beginning of the season. It took a toll on a lot of people, a lot of players."

Goodwin further says the coaches knew about the drug use but chose to do nothing because the team was winning. Chizik never followed through on his threat to kick players off the team for using it, leading to a sense of complacency in Dakota Mosley:

The first time Mosley learned that he'd failed Auburn's new drug test for Spice, in February 2011, he was petrified. "I was scared that I was gonna have to call my parents again and tell them that I'd failed another drug test and I was gonna get kicked off the team," he told The Mag.

Actually nothing happened, even after he'd failed six more drug tests by March 9. Petrone did tell him to stop using the drug, but "it was kind of weird," Dakota says. "It was like you could get in trouble for doing it, but you couldn't get in trouble. It almost seemed like it was OK."

In Conclusion

Here is Assael's case in short.

Auburn knew about the dangerous drug of synthetic marijuana in the summer of 2010. By some point during the season, the coaching staff knew it was a problem among players on the team. A test for synthetic marijuana existed at the time, but Auburn did not know about it because it didn't explore every option for fighting the drug. Auburn either chose not to act on the synthetic marijuana usage so as not to disrupt a winning season or simply didn't think it was a big enough deal to do everything in its power to curb its usage on the football team. Auburn, therefore, is either complicit or negligent in regards to the personal downfalls of the former players who abused synthetic marijuana.

There are two main ways to look at this.

One way is to take what coaches say about their programs at face value, particularly in this case given how much the school uses the phrase "Auburn family" and how much Chizik talked about religion. They say that they'll be like parents for the players while they're at school. That they'll look out for them as if they were their own children. That the welfare of the players comes ahead of winning games and making money. In that light, then no, Auburn didn't do as much as it could have done. Principally, it could have sought out another option when its drug testing agency said it didn't have a test for synthetic marijuana, and according to Goodwin, Mosley, and Mosley's father, it could have done more to impress upon the players how serious a deal it was.

The other is Kirk's way. Expecting Auburn to do more than it did would be holding it to a far higher standard than anyone else had at the time. The DEA didn't ban synthetic marijuana until March of 2011, the NCAA's ban on it didn't go into effect until August of 2011, and it was sold legally in the state of Alabama until October of 2011. AU got a pretty early jump on things by beginning its education program in August of 2010. It began testing for it three days after its drug testing agency had a test for it. Expecting the school to have done more is unfair, and furthermore the athletic program couldn't have done more according to Assael's own piece:

Based on documents obtained by The Mag, Auburn's 2010 drug policy allows for the banning of drugs also on the NCAA's banned substances list, including a category called street drugs. While the NCAA's list defines marijuana as a street drug (no specific mention of synthetic marijuana), a clause in the Auburn policy would've allowed it to expand the definition to include "related compounds." Yet the school's legal staff concluded that Spice was not a related compound of regular marijuana. "In 2010 and early 2011, using synthetic marijuana was not necessarily a transgression of our policy," says C. Randall Clark, the head of the university senate's drug testing committee.

In other words, the school deemed that the athletic department couldn't discipline students caught using Spice in the same manner as those caught using regular marijuana or cocaine. That meant no parental notification, no loss of playing time and no mandatory counseling.

Emphasis mine.

In one view, the fact that Auburn did less than the maximum means it dropped the ball. In the other view, the fact that Auburn did more than what was required means it did well.

Whether you fall on one side, the other, or somewhere in between is purely a judgment call.