NORMAN, Okla. — It’s hard for James Allen to remember a time when he wasn’t around marijuana.
“Cannabis was always floating around at my family reunions and everything,” the former OU and NFL running back said. “So it wasn’t bad until you see the criminal offense being placed on it, especially for people of color — let’s just look at the numbers.
“Then you see it from that perspective. ‘Oh my God, I can’t get caught with that.’”
Even with that stigma — and possible punishment — Allen still used marijuana during high school, college and in the NFL.
“I don’t think there was a medicinal knowledge of when I would use cannabis,” Allen said. “It was more just the culture I grew up in. We smoked weed. That’s just what everybody was doing whether it was secretly or out in the open.”
The NCAA’s treatment of marijuana users has been in the crosshairs in recent months.
Three Sooners — wide receiver Trejan Bridges, defensive end Ronnie Perkins and running back Rhamondre Stevenson — were supsended earlier this season due to positive marijuana tests, persons with knowledge of the situation confirmed to The Oklahoman, a part of the USA TODAY Network. The persons spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the nature of the offenses pubicly.
As first time offenders, the three were suspended for half of a season — six games. They are eligible to return for Saturday’s game at Texas Tech (7 p.m., Fox), though it remains unclear if one or all will be in uniform for the Sooners.
OU coach Lincoln Riley said hard-and-fast answers have eluded him and everyone else inside the program.
“It’s been really, really hard on those three kids,” Riley said Thursday. “I gotta watch what I say. But I mean, it’s been agonizing for those three kids. It’s not right.”
A year ago, the NCAA increased the threshold to trigger a positive test for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component of cannabis, from 15 to 35 nanograms per milliliter. Two years prior, the threshold was raised from just five nanograms per milliliter.
But with states continuing to legalize the substance, at least for medical purposes, there’s been an even greater push to further change the NCAA’s testing and punishment structures.
Only three states fully ban any marijuana use, though South Dakota residents are set to vote on the legalization or the substance next week in two separate ballot measures. Eleven states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.
According to federal law, though, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, considered a high potential for abuse with no accepted medical use.
That designation, even with laws that prohibit federal officials from interfering with state cannabis laws, makes major change difficult for the NCAA, though not impossible, Allen said.
“We need more federal clarity on where we’re gonna go with cannabis,” Allen said.
Count Riley among those whose views on marijuana have changed in recent years.
“I grew up, and even as a young coach, looking at it like this is just a lazy, dumb thing people do, and if they do they should get punished,” Riley said Thursday. “That’s kind of how I was raised. That’s how I was raised as a coach.”
In recent years, as use of the drug has gained more popularity for treating a wider variety of ailments — from anxiety and depression to nausea and pain to helping patients handle the side effects from chemotherapy — and legalization has spread including to Oklahoma, Riley’s view of marijuana has continued to evolve.
“For a lot of people — not saying everybody — but for a lot of people this isn’t performance-enhancing. This isn’t a party deal,” Riley said.
“For a lot of people, it’s a major mental-health issue. Major. And as I finally woke up and paid attention, with that realization in me finally being able to learn that and understand that — which took me too long, honestly — it shifted everything about how we handle that issue in our program.”
Riley wouldn’t give specifics about how marijuana use is treated internally but said there have been significant shifts.
“We’ve had just a remarkable turnaround in a short time in our program on that whole issue,” Riley said. “And then the NCAA needs to wake up and figure that out too. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet for these kids. Now, it’ll get changed soon, but not soon enough for these three guys.”
Allen said during his time at OU, from 1993-96, a significant number of his teammates smoked marijuana, but it wasn’t any more than teams before or since.
“I didn’t know how many other people — athletes — smoked weed,” Allen said of his transition from Wynnewood High School to college at OU. “That’s when I realized, ‘Holy (expletive), everybody smokes weed.’”
Allen said it was even more pronounced his junior year when Howard Schnellenberger coached the Sooners, both due to the internal turmoil inside the team and the different way Schnellenberger carried himself compared to Gary Gibbs before him and John Blake after him.
“I’m not trying to sound like a saint here, but I really didn’t do a lot in college,” Allen said. “I mean, I’d drink and do this but that year, I smoked a lot.”
That was the year when Allen first failed a marijuana test and he said plenty of his teammates failed tests as well, which he said wasn’t surprising given how often the substance was available.
“We’d get together, hang out as teammates and there’d be a blunt there,” Allen said.
During the season, though, Allen said he avoided marijuana.
So despite his views on marijuana, Allen’s sympathy for Bridges, Perkins and Stevenson only goes so far.
“When you have that much on the line, even though we used to party and everyone did their thing, at that moment it’s all hands on deck — no drinking, no smoking, no kicking it. We’re here for a reason,” Allen said. “If you can’t sacrifice that for the national championship, then you’re supposed to get suspended.
“It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than weed.”
When Oklahoma voters approved medical marijuana legalization in 2018, Allen considered getting into the business.
“It’s still cannabis and it still has a taboo surrounding it,” Allen said. “So I (was thinking) if I did do it, how would that play with me as a former athlete and with my influence on younger athletes.”
That concern hasn’t completely disappeared for Allen, but a visit to Urban Wellness, a black-owned dispensary in Oklahoma City, helped push him in the direction of exploring the idea further.
“Instead of seeing it as an abusive (substance), you learn to use it as a medicative (substance),” Allen said. “A lot of people come into this thing just wanting to get the card just so they can indulge. But then you come across the right people.”
Allen is now in the cannabis business, opening Crimson Greenery dispensary in Ardmore which he hopes will expand elsewhere and diversify into growing and processing as well.
But he wants to make sure young athletes know they have to be responsible if they decide to use marijuana.
“I want to show them that you can do business in these areas but you don’t have to be a hippie smoker and smoke your life away or your career away,” Allen said.
“That’s not what James Allen is trying to show you. That still is very important to me. How I’m going to do that, I don’t know just yet but there are a lot of athletes all over the country are involved in cannabis. I’m one of the many.”