By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Football fans heading to the NFL season opener between the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos on Thursday will see a huge billboard urging the league to loosen its policy on marijuana use by players.
The 14-by-48-foot (4.3-by-14.6-meter) sign along the main boulevard leading to Denver's Sports Authority Field at Mile High calls on the league to "Stop Driving Players to Drink - A Safer Choice is Now Legal (Here)," referring to Colorado's recent legalization of recreational marijuana.
The ad campaign aimed at the National Football League is the brainchild of the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates the nationwide legalization of cannabis.
"For years, the NFL has been punishing players for using marijuana despite the fact that it is less harmful than alcohol, a substance widely embraced by the league," said the group's spokesman, Mason Tvert.
"We hope Commissioner (Roger) 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."
Neither the Broncos nor the NFL would comment on the billboard.
The NFL prohibits players from the illegal use of marijuana, and players are tested for it along with other drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines. Violators are subject to suspensions and fines. The commissioner can also impose fines or suspensions for alcohol-related violations such as drunken driving.
Last fall, voters in Colorado and Washington state approved separate ballot measures making them the first in the nation to legalize the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana by adults. Both states are in the process of setting up regulatory frameworks for commercial pot sales.
Marijuana remains classified as an illegal narcotic under U.S. law. But last week U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said federal law enforcement would not target users in Colorado and Washington as long as they comply with their respective state marijuana laws.
The campaign to allow cannabis for NFL players comes on the night of a nationally televised match-up between the Broncos and Super Bowl champion Ravens, which beat the Denver team in a double-overtime playoff game last season on the way to winning the title.
At the same time, Broncos' All-Pro linebacker Von Miller is beginning his six-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
Tvert, whose group also is launching a petition drive urging the NFL to loosen its pot policy, said the billboard cost $5,000 to rent.
(Reporting and writing by Keith Coffman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Von Ahn)