Have you ever had to hide the fact that you’re a cannabis consumer? Many marijuana enthusiasts have to hide that fact from their employers; there are no protections against being fired for cannabis use in most places (with Maine and Nevada being the exception for now). When it comes to professional sports and cannabis, the National Football League (NFL) has not always been known for having the most open attitude towards marijuana. Many NFL players have been suspended or fined over possession or positive testing for marijuana. Others, like star running back Ricky Williams, have left the NFL altogether because they couldn’t opt for the medicine they wanted. However, with changes in cannabis legislation happening across the country, NFL players have spoken out about the need for the league to rethink its policies on cannabis. Let’s take a look at the latest developments.
NFL to Research Cannabis-Based Treatments
A press release the NFL put out in May announced that the league had reached two joint agreements with the National Football League Players’ Association (NFLPA). In discussions, the NFL and the NFLPA agreed on additional support and resources for pain management and behavioral health for players. One result of the joint agreements is the undertaking of a study on pain management strategies for players. The study will be carried out by a committee that includes representatives from the NFL and the NFLPA.
Medical experts will be assigned to help establish blanket policies on pain management across the league. The study will look into traditional treatments for pain as well as “alternative methods,” including cannabis-based treatments. In an interview with ESPN, the NFL’s Chief Medical Officer Allen Sills said, “We want to explore all of the strategies that help a player deal with acute and chronic pain. Some of those efforts require medication, some don’t. With regard to marijuana, certainly there’s a lot of discussion about not only cannabis but cannabinoid compounds, CBD, and it’s something that health care providers are exploring outside of football. That type of research will certainly be part of the mission of this committee and this program.” Sills also added that it was a “very historic and proud day for league and NFLPA to partner together on this.”
Allen Sills also spoke to NFL.com about the new pain management effort. He reiterated that research will include cannabis and other cannabinoid-based treatments like CBD. Sills said that the study was “much broader and bigger than (marijuana). The goal of this effort is well beyond marijuana. It’s to look at pain treatment.”
NFL Players Push for Marijuana Policy Changes
The joint effort between the NFL and the NFLPA will be the league’s first research initiative into cannabis. Since the undertaking of this study is a divergence from the NFL’s former stance on weed, it seems the league has become somewhat more open-minded on the issue after conflicts with several players over cannabis. This year, former Dallas Cowboy David Irving was suspended for cannabis. Irving talked to CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney show about cannabis in the League. “Eighty percent of each team participates in the use of medical marijuana–if not higher. If I’m a player rep for my team and we take all the player reps from every team and we get all our players together and go do something together, what is the NFL going to do?” said Irving. “It’s literally our jobs to get concussions every single day. We’re going to get hurt, and then they offer us opioids. I don’t agree with that.”
Irving isn’t the only one to challenge the NFL on their cannabis stance. Super Bowl champion Marvin Washington told CBS news that “sensible non-prohibitive, non-degrading cannabis policy” may be on the NFL’s horizon as soon as 2021. Washington pointed to the federal government’s patent for CBD as an “antioxidant neuroprotectant” as evidence of the potential CBD has to help players.
How Cannabis Can Help NFL Players
As an antioxidant neuroprotectant, CBD found in cannabis may be able to protect players from one of the most common injuries in football; concussions. Antioxidants reduce the buildup of reactive oxygen species, which in the brain leads to deterioration of brain structures. This can happen following the overproduction of glutamine by neurotransmitters in the brain after a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Dr. Ethan Russo of the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute presented his findings on cannabis and TBI at this year’s Cultivation Classic event in Portland, Oregon. His research shows that CBD and THC help prevent glutamate excitotoxicity.
CBD and THC can also be effective against chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition caused by repeated brain injuries that can display as behavioral problems, dementia or suicidal thoughts.
Other studies support NFL players’ claims that cannabis treatments help them deal with chronic pain and the effects of traumatic brain injuries. The American Academy of Neurology published a study that found patients to show moderate improvement of chronic pain and concussion symptoms after consuming cannabis. Prior studies indicate that the NFL and the NFLPA’s joint study may come back with very positive results. If the league takes these findings on board, Marvin Washington’s predictions may come true sooner rather than later.
The NFL and the NFLPA’s joint research initiative will be an important first step in working towards sensible cannabis rules for professional football players. Willingness to look into cannabis is already a positive sign for a league that has maintained a rigid drug policy until now. Cannabis advocates and NFL players will all be holding their breath for developments that come as a result of the study.
Do you think the NFL should allow cannabis consumption? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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