Interview by Peter Gorman
Born in Erie, PA on January 20, 1967, Mark Stepnoski knew he wanted to be a football player by the time he was nine years old. And though he only grew to be 6’2” and 265 pounds, small by National Football League standards, he worked hard enough to become a five-time All-Pro center and one of the key components of two Dallas Cowboy Super Bowl championship teams. He’s also a veteran pot-smoker who recently took over as president of the Texas NORML chapter. HIGH TIMES caught up with him at his home outside Dallas.
HT: Let’s start with your college career at Pitt. How do you evaluate that?
It wasn’t really all that satisfying. We had several average seasons, and only went to one bowl game in the four years I was there. But I was able to do what I wanted to do there football-wise individually. I was a full-time starter from my sophomore year onward, so I got to play a lot and in my senior year got to make some All-America teams, then got drafted by the Dallas Cowboys.
How difficult was it to make it in the pros as an undersized player?
Strength, speed and athletic ability help. But you can find those qualities in any gym in the US. What makes a football player is heart, desire, intelligence—given that you have the other qualities.
How soon was your first Pro Bowl?
In my fourth season, in 1992. That was also the year we won the first of our two Super Bowls.
You had some wild men on that Dallas Cowboy team, didn’t you?
Yeah. Later on it came to light there were some guys who had some problems. Mike Irvin and Leon Lett were two of the more well-known ones, but there were others.
Was it a party team?
There’s a saying that the team takes on the personality of the coach, and our head coach, Jimmy Johnson, was well-known for his taste for Heinekens. So yes, we sort of took on Johnson’s personality.
Did that help make you a winning team?
I think so. Jimmy had a philosophy of play hard on the field, play hard off the field. I think he possibly thought the two went together. As long as you did your job for him and did it well, he wasn’t going to snoop into what you were doing the rest of the time. It wasn’t his responsibility to be your parent or your guardian or anything else. It was his job to be your head coach and get you playing well for him, so that everybody could win the games. And we did that for as long as he was there.
We still had the curfews and everything else. We practiced very hard. Long hours. Discipline was pervasive. But that’s where it ended. You were on your own after hours. Obviously there are going to be guys who, along the way, mess up, have problems, and end up in trouble. But the majority of the guys in the league are responsible—you have to be fairly responsible to make it that far in the first place.
When did you first try pot?
In high school. Just here and there, when my friends had it. But I was an A student in a good high school where you were expected to do well, and I also spent a lot of time with football, so I didn’t have a lot of time to party. I certainly didn’t smoke every day. But when I was with my friends, I would sometimes smoke, and I never had a bad experience with it.
Did you continue to smoke in college?
In college, football played an even bigger part, taking even more of your time. Number one because that’s what paid for school—I went on an athletic scholarship—and number two, since my goal was to make the NFL, there wasn’t a lot of time for partying. Plus I was studying rhetoric and communications, and that took a lot of time. So yes, I smoked, but not on a regular basis and not all that often.
Okay. Let’s talk about the NFL, where you suddenly found yourself an adored Dallas Cowboy in Cowboyland. How did that affect you and how did you deal with it?
I know what you’re asking. There was a big winning tradition here in Dallas. But when I arrived they were the worst team in the league, and we continued to be the worst team in the league my first year. So it wasn’t Party City then.
But we did have a relatively fast turnaround, and when we began to win, people got really excited about us. A lot of people wanted to identify with the team, and for some guys that presented a great deal of temptation. For me personally though, the temptation was never really a factor in any respect. I would go out and have fun, but I wasn’t one of those guys who went out and partied every night. Like I said, we worked hard, even in the off-season.
So while I would go out and have a good time, it was never like women threw themselves at my feet or guys came up to me with exotic drugs and said, “Here, take some of this.” It just wasn’t like that. The guys I went out with mostly went to low-key places, bars, and had some beer and played darts or shot pool or whatever. I’m not saying I was a monk, but it wasn’t all North Dallas Forty either.
Was it North Dallas Forty for some of the guys?
Absolutely. There was a big story in Dallas. Some of the guys on the team got together and bought a house, and they would go there and party. They’d hang out, get the women, whatever. I was never there, but I remember when I first heard about it, I wondered how long it would be before they got busted. Sure enough, a couple of years later they got caught, and it was a big story around Dallas. So yeah, there were guys who got out of hand for sure.
How does doing drugs and drinking affect those guys who overdo it?
You’re always going to have some guys who get into the league and think they’re on the best team in the best league and they can go out and party, and they forget what got them there. They let things slip, and the next thing you know, they’re out of a job. But some of them can succeed at burning the candle at both ends for a while. They’re young and physically gifted. So while some guys can only get away with that for a little while, some guys get away with that for a long time.
How about pot? Is marijuana-smoking a normal thing with players, and are they open about it with each other?
I think it’s like in normal life. If you like to smoke, you’ll hang out with people who like to smoke. As far as the whole team, I don’t know. There are 53 guys on a team, and some of those guys you don’t know very well at all. You certainly don’t hang out with all of them socially. But birds of a feather hang together, so it’s something you do with your friends.
Could you smoke the day before a game and still play your best?
I wouldn’t. I took the game very seriously. The night before a game was a time to prepare, have something good to eat, get a good night’s sleep, anything that would help ensure a good performance the next day. And that would preclude the use of marijuana. To me it’s all about responsibility. There’s a time and a place for everything.
How about for pain? Did you smoke pot for that?
Well, I never wanted to take painkillers if I could help it. They’d give them after surgery, and I had six surgeries on my knee. But I knew that painkillers were very powerful drugs and they’re potentially addictive, so as soon as the pain was bearable without them, I stopped using them. I just don’t like that stuff in my body if I don’t have to.
Pot would make me feel better, but I’m not going to say I was smoking it medicinally. We’re talking 10-12 years ago, and for most of the public marijuana wasn’t even on the radar as medicine yet. But after games, it definitely made me feel better.
What made you decide to go public with your pot-smoking? You are, after all, high-profile, and risk a lot by telling the world you smoked pot during your Cowboy career.
I’ve been educating myself on the issues for a long time. As a football player and someone very conscious of what I was putting into my body, I took it upon myself to find out about marijuana, since I was smoking it.
I read The Emperor Wears No Clothes about 10 years ago, and I began reading books about the Drug War and I started reading HIGH TIMES. And the more I learned about the issue, the more I felt that marijuana prohibition was wrong.
I finally reached the point where I wanted to join NORML, and I became a lifetime member back in 1998. I really believe in their cause. I know there are all these successful people out there in all walks of life who smoke marijuana. So I just found myself getting more and more involved with the issue.
How did you wind up as the Texas NORML president?
What happened was that after my twelfth season in the league, I got a letter from Rick Day, who at the time was president of Texas NORML. He thought that I was done playing and asked if I’d given any thought to what I’d do after my career, specifically whether I’d given any thought to working for marijuana-law reform. Obviously he knew I was a member of NORML. So I called him. I told him I was going to play one more year, and he said he understood, but to call him when I finished.
So in January or February of 2002, when I was done playing my last year, I gave him another call. He suggested we get together to talk, and we did that. Not long after that he had to move, and said he needed someone to take his place, and would I do it? I said I would, and shortly after that, I took over the presidency of Texas NORML.
What are your duties in that position?
At the moment it’s financial support—mine for now, but hopefully we’ll develop other sources as time goes by. And then there are public appearances on the radio and meeting with politicians to try to change the laws.
I need to add that about the same time that those things were going on with Rick, I was asked by the national NORML in Washington DC to join their national advisory board, which they put together earlier this year. They wanted some people who were a little more high-profile to be on this board, to be advocates for marijuana-law reform. So I agreed to join that too, and that was announced back in May.
How are you going to respond to those people who say you’re a bad role model for kids because of your new public stance and position?
Playing football, you’re a role model for kids. Being a spokesman for marijuana-law reform, people are going to scrutinize me to see what a marijuana-smoker looks like and lives like. So how I live and carry out my day-to-day responsibilities will have to speak to that question.
What’s your personal feeling about marijuana laws as they are?
I know a guy who’s in jail right now for marijuana possession. To me it’s a tremendous waste of our limited resources. As a football player, I literally paid millions of dollars in federal taxes, and I don’t feel it’s right that a lot of that money is being used to incarcerate responsible adults who use marijuana in their spare time. I just think that’s wrong.
There are a lot of areas in which we lag behind the rest of the world. The way our students score on tests compared to other industrialized countries, our literacy rate, the teenage pregnancy rate, and others. But this is one area where we don’t need to fall behind. The vast majority of the countries in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and even some of the states in the US have decriminalized the use of marijuana. And they’ve had success doing it. They free up very valuable tax dollars for use in other areas where they are desperately needed, like the areas I’ve just mentioned.
Give me an example.
OK. It costs roughly $30,000 per year to incarcerate someone, and that’s probably about three thousand more than the average teacher’s salary. How about we let some of those people out of jail who are in for marijuana possession, and give the teachers a raise, so maybe our students do a little better? Or fix some of our deteriorating school buildings? How about we replenish some of the libraries where the textbooks are outdated by 10 years? There are just a lot of areas in which we could make smarter use of our limited financial resources.
I no longer think we can afford to ignore the cost of arresting 730,000 people a year for marijuana offenses, nearly all of whom are jailed solely for possession of small amounts. That’s a whole lot of money that could be put to better and more productive use in other areas.
What’s Texas NORML’s plan to help speed change in the current marijuana law?
We’re concentrating on decriminalization, as the first step and an important step. The executive director of Texas NORML, Howard Woolridge, is going to Austin in early 2003 to lobby legislators there to try to find one or more who will sponsor a marijuana-decriminalization bill in Texas next year.
Currently, Texas law states that simple possession is a Class B misdemeanor, which means you have to be arrested, booked, tried on the offense, and possibly face jail time. We’re hoping to have that reduced to a Class C misdemeanor, which would reduce it to a fineable offense only.
That would save the state of Texas millions of dollars annually, and with Texas roughly $5 billion in debt, changing the marijuana law makes simple financial sense. Not only do you save the money on the police hours involved in the arrest and booking of someone, but you save the money used for court time and obviously, the prison time. Now at the same time, if you eliminate all that, you would generate revenues by issuing fines. If politicians are looking for ways to eliminate that $5 billion debt, this would be a simple but important step in that direction.
You’re up against some stiff opposition with that concept.
Oh, yeah. Wackenhut and the Corrections Corporation of America with their privatized prisons and their per-inmate contracts. But in California you had the prison guards’ union, which was strong enough to get the “three strikes” law pushed through, but still the people there passed their medical-marijuana bills and decriminalized possession. I think people simply saw those issues as smart policies to endorse. Like I said, we can learn the lesson from the other countries and states who have already done it.
The truth is that the majority of people in the US think it’s wrong to imprison people for marijuana possession. So it’s just a question of finding the right politician with the courage to present the legislation, and then hopefully getting the people out to vote for it.
Could you win if it were introduced?
You’ve got to get it on the radar screen. You’ve got to start somewhere. And Texas has the activists to get the word out. But I’m not going to go on the record with a prediction.
How about Mark Stepnoski? You’re really risking a lot by taking this public stance. Does that intimidate you?
I think the issue is very important, and I’m willing to stand up for it. As far as jeopardizing my place on the banquet circuit goes, I was never planning on making a living that way after I retired anyway.
How about your relationship with the Cowboys? Will this affect that?
So far it hasn’t. I guess time will tell. The people who didn’t like me before this probably still won’t. But the people who are my friends, well, this won’t affect those friendships. And if it does, then I guess they weren’t really my friends to begin with.