Photograph: Reuters It’s not often that people feel sorry for NFL players. With even the lowest-paid rookies earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, they live a life that most fans could only dream of. But in the states of Colorado and Washington, the general public enjoy at least one privilege that NFL players do not. As long as they are 21 or older, those fans can smoke marijuana. Despite being legalised in both of those two states, marijuana remains on the NFL’s list of banned substances; players found to have used the drug are punishable with fines and suspensions. Not everyone believes that should be the case. Ahead of Thursday’s season opener between the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens , the Marijuana Policy Project a reform group who have campaigned for the drug’s legalisation posted a giant billboard advertisement outside Mile High Stadium, where the game would take place. “Stop driving players to drink,” reads their message, posted alongside a picture of a football propped up against a beer glass. “A safer choice is now legal (here).” “For years, the NFL has been punishing players for using marijuana despite the fact that it is far less harmful than alcohol, a substance widely embraced by the league,” said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the group, in a statement sent to US media outlets. “The league would never punish a player simply for having a couple beers, so why does it penalize them for using a substance that is less toxic, less addictive, and less likely to contribute to violence? “The NFL’s harsh marijuana penalties do nothing to promote the health and safety of the players. If anything, they put players in danger by steering them toward using alcohol and away from making the safer choice to use marijuana instead. We hope Commissioner Goodell will explain why the NFL is willing to promote the use of alcohol among its players and fans, but unwilling to recognize that a safer alternative is now legal here.” No response is expected from Goodell. NFL executives have thus far declined to comment on the issue, but USA Today reported on Thursday that league spokesman Brian McCarthy had informed them: “We do not plan on changing our policies.” Nevertheless, this is a well-orchestrated publicity move by the Marijuana Policy Project, with the timing and location of the billboard guaranteeing national exposure. Many players will be sympathetic to their cause. The former NFL lineman Lomas Brown, now an analyst for ESPN, told the Detroit News last year that at least 50% of players smoke pot. Earlier in 2012, ESPN had reported that as many as 70% of prospects trying out at the NFL Combine admitted to having used the drug at some point. A number of players have enjoyed highly successful careers despite acknowledged marijuana habits. Wide receiver Randy Moss acknowledged using the drug to HBO in 2005, but continued to enjoy a successful career, posting some of the most productive years of his career in New England between 2007 and 2009. The Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was arrested for marijuana possession in 2009, back when he was playing for Buffalo. He has been to two Pro Bowls since. Even those who do not partake may not object to their colleagues doing so. Many have expressed strong opinions about performance-enhancing drugs , due to their capacity to create an unbalanced playing field, but those same sentiments rarely extend to mild recreational substances. “If the NFL has cared so little for so long about the long-term damage caused by concussions, why should the league care how [Von] Miller chooses to relax?” asked the columnist Mike Kiszla last month in the Denver Post . “So long as it doesn’t adversely affect Miller’s performance on the field, I don’t think it should be any of the NFL’s business.” Prior to the changing of laws in Colorado and Washington, the league could simply have countered that it did not want its players involved in any illegal activity. If it is to maintain its policy going forwards, the NFL may need to come up with a more nuanced argument. Any change in the NFL’s policy on marijuana, however, would need to be negotiated between players and the league, a prospect which seems unlikely just two years after a major round of negotiations led to a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement between those sides. “The NFL’s policy is collectively bargained and will continue to apply in the same manner it has for decades,” said the NFL spokesman Greg Aiello in November. “Marijuana remains prohibited under the NFL substance abuse program.” That has stopped this billboard, however, from sparking a national debate.