Fisher: Marijuana 'epidemic' among athletes

When Jimbo Fisher dismissed starting cornerback Greg Reid two weeks ago, his hands were tied.

Reid, a senior and three-year starter, had been arrested on misdemeanor charges that included possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. It was his third incident, and Florida State's rules required Fisher to say goodbye to a player teammates lauded as an intense and dedicated leader.

The incident isn't unique, and last week LSU star Tyrann Mathieu became the latest big name to be booted from a program due, reportedly, to repeated violations of the school's rules regarding marijuana use.

It is, as Fisher described it, an epidemic.

"I think it's tremendous in the high school and junior high levels," Fisher said. "I think it's bigger than it's ever been in our society, Woodstock, any of that. It's bigger now than it's ever been."

Indeed, recent surveys show that drug use among junior high and high school students has risen dramatically in recent years, from about 18.8 percent of 12th graders in 2007 to 22.6 percent in 2011, according to Monitoring the Future.

The NCAA's latest survey, which was conducted in 2009, showed close to 27 percent of football players admitted using marijuana in the past year, even as the number of high-profile incidents have continued to shed light on the problem.

Fisher, of course, is not alone among coaches concerned with the issue, but he believes the current system may not be providing anything close to a true understanding of the problem.

"My point (is) not to catch them, but to help them," Fisher said. "I think there's a difference. Provide the help to those kids that gives them a chance to get out of it. Because if we don't, who will? Some people may not agree with me and think that's part of our job. I think it's totally our job."

Fisher said punishment is necessary, and he admits there are cases when a coaching staff must make the decision to cut ties, but the current system has two significant flaws.

For one, there is no universal set of rules among NCAA programs on testing for marijuana or doling out punishment for athletes caught using the drug.

Top programs like LSU, Georgia and Florida State have tested regularly and dealt with the aftermath, with impact players suspended or dismissed.

Other programs do not have random testing for marijuana. The NCAA only tests prior to bowl games and championship events.

According to a recent ESPN report, less than 1 percent of athletes will be tested for marijuana in a given year by the NCAA.

Meanwhile, the punishments provided by individual schools can waver dramatically -- from a few extra laps after practice to dismissal from the program.

"Some schools don't have a policy; it's different across the country," Fisher said. "Some schools, there is no limit. I think there has to be flexibility within your system if kids are doing well and if they're meeting treatment plans."

Beyond more uniform testing and punishment, however, Fisher said the real solutions lie in understanding the problem.

Given the diverse socioeconomic backgrounds of many college athletes, the views on marijuana aren't often shared between athletes and administrators.

"When they set in their house, and everybody in their house has smoked marijuana like you do cigarettes from the time they're 3 years old until they're 18, how do they know any different?" Fisher said. "That's the norm to them."

In fact, Fisher said, the problems associated with marijuana on campus are often far less severe than those associated with alcohol consumption -- but the latter does not come with the same strict punishments because, for players 21 and older, drinking isn't illegal.

"We look at alcohol like it's not a problem," Fisher said. "It isn't illegal, and I understand that. But I'll tell you what -- it causes as many deaths or bad circumstances as any other drug."

Fisher also suggested that, while marijuana use tends to be more prevalent among players from poorer backgrounds, illicit drug use is a universal issue on college campuses, regardless of wealth.

"I think it's worse at some of the higher-level schools," Fisher said. "I think when you go to the higher-level schools with more money, you get more hard drugs than you do at the others, compared to marijuana."

Earlier this month, former basketball star Chris Herren came to visit with Florida State players.

Herren was a star in college and played in the NBA, but his career was ruined by drug use. It's a story he now shares with athletes on college campuses around the country.

The message won't get through to everyone, Fisher admits, but it's a start.

As much as recruiting and coaching, Fisher believes a program's ability to transition its athletes from troubled backgrounds to a more prosperous future is what will separate elite programs around the country.

"The infrastructure of your program, teaching and helping those kids, whoever masters that the best is going to be the programs that win the most," Fisher said. "We can stick our heads in the sand and pretend it ain't there, but it is. And it doesn't make them bad kids. It's our job to help fix them. Some you'll help, some you won't, but that's why we're here. And if we don't think so, we're wrong."