The NFL Could Allow Marijuana In Place of Addicting Painkillers for Players

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Just weeks after the Super Bowl, the National Football League is already focusing on the well-being of its athletes in future seasons, with cannabis potentially becoming a viable option for pain treatment in its players. For years, American football has been criticized for being a sport in which injuries can be not only career-ending but potentially fatal, and more and more studies are focusing on how players are susceptible to everything from sore muscles to serious brain damage. Many of the athletes who develop work-related injuries are prescribed opiate-based medications to treat pain, compounding their diagnoses with a very real threat of addiction in an era when more and more Americans are becoming dependent on (and abusing) highly addictive prescription medication.

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In a report for Forbes, sports journalist Leigh Steinberg covers the longstanding debate around medical marijuana in professional sports, particularly in football where “the league has suspended players for their recreational and medicinal use of the drug.” But as the movement for nationwide legalization continues to gain steam (28 states now allow for the medical use of the plant) and the opioid epidemic continues to ravage the country, it appears the NFL could be coming around. “[T]he push for permitting use of marijuana as a pain reliever is getting stronger,” writes Steinberg, who also shares that “the most commonly used marijuana-related substance among players is Cannabidiol (CBD),” a compound extracted from the cannabis plant. In oil form, it is commonly used to address everything from acne outbreaks to PTSD, but it remains banned by the NFL (as well as Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association).

At least, for now. Proponents of CBD use in professional athletes continue to come forth including Seantrel Henderson, who Steinberg explains has used and been banned for using CBD to treat his Chron’s Disease. “[H]e noted that doctors recommended CBD because painkillers would have been harmful to his intestines and recovery,” so he followed his physician’s advice and ended up being suspended twice by the NFL. “Henderson’s suspension for using a doctor proscribed medicine to treat a disease has been a core component of the argument of CBD advocates for modification of the NFL’s drug policy,” Steinberg explains, suggesting that the NFL is often times in disagreement with data coming out of medicine. Henderson is joined by fellow advocate Jake Plummer,  former NFL quarterback whose struggles with injuries led him to adopt the use of CBD. As Steinberg reports, “Plummer credits CBD in helping him with the repercussions of NFL related injuries and avoiding the addictive nature of painkillers.” Similar sentiments have been expressed in the NBA, namely by Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who in December expressed his hope that the league would soften its stance on the use of medicinal cannabis.

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However, progress is proving to be slow. Potentially, 2020 could be the year that medicinal use of marijuana is accepted by the league, but that still remains only a possibility. “The current NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which is the agreement between the players’ union and management council that represents the owners, expires in 2020,” explains Steinberg. Among the things negotiated in a CBA is healthcare for players, and Steinberg writes “I expect that in the following three years leading up to the next CBA that arguments will amplify for removing CBD from the NFL’s banned substance list.” Furthermore, “If it can be proven that CBD does not have addictive tendencies and does not have any gateway drug risk, we could even see the banned substance policy change prior to the next CBA.”

Henderson and Plummer are not alone in their advocacy and first-person experience with the benefits of cannabis for pain treatment. A simple news search locates many former and current NFL players with similar stories. Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has expressed a favorable opinion on the matter, after “The NFL Players’ Association recently announced its intent to propose to the league a “less punitive” approach to dealing with recreational marijuana use among players,” (as reported by the Denver Post). Specifically, Goodell is quoted as having said “issues of addressing [marijuana use] more in a treatment and less punitive measure is appropriate.”

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Legalization advocacy organization Marijuana Majority recently launched a campaign to get the attention of Goodell in an effort to force the NFL to change its harsh punishment of players who use marijuana.