Why Are So Many NFL Players Smoking Pot?

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The NFL has a long-standing marijuana ban—but some say that might change

October 19, 2017
 
It’s no secret that football is one of the roughest, toughest sports out there. Just look at the numbers: in 2013-2014 alone, NFL athletes suffered a total of 1,300 on-field injuries, according to a study conducted by SimpleTherapy. And no body part is safe: according to the infographic, 22 percent of injuries occur to players’ knees, 15 percent to their ankles, 12 percent in their upper legs, and 9 percent to their shoulders.

When a 350-pound lineman crashes into your knee, it’s going to hurt. A lot. The consequences of injury last well beyond Game Day. In fact, many players deal with constant pain throughout the season — and they’re resorting to dangerous self-medication methods as a result.

According to a study from Washington University at St. Louis, more than 50% of retired NFL players used powerful opioids during their career, and more than 70% of these users reported having abused these drugs. Because opioids are powerful pain medications with a high addiction rate, the authors of the study concluded that NFL players are at three times the risk of opioid abuse compared to the general public.

There is, however, a potentially better alternative — marijuana. While medical cannabis is a controversial method of pain relief, researchers at McGill University have determined that it is a relatively safe way to manage chronic pain. For this reason, an increasing number of NFL players are using marijuana for pain management. In fact, according to former offensive lineman Eben Britton, who was interviewed about the topic by cannabis startup HERB, more than 60% of active NFL players use cannabis for pain management.

From a legal perspective, this isn’t a huge issue, especially when you consider that medical marijuana is currently legal in many of the 32 cities where NFL teams play. From the NFL’s perspective, however, it is. The league has historically banned marijuana use, even when it has been used for medicinal purposes, which has led to players being suspended or slapped with fines. For instance, last year commissioner Roger Goodell made headlines for suspending Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, who had been prescribed medical marijuana to treat his Crohn’s disease.

That said, the league’s views toward marijuana might be changing. Recently, the league decided to work with the Players Association to study whether pot could be a viable treatment option for injured players. Most recently, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones reportedly said in a private meeting that he hoped the NFL would drop its marijuana ban.

“If players are going to get NFL teams to move away from the use of synthetic pain drugs to treat injuries, I feel they need to band together and form an alliance with one another regarding the use of CBD [cannabidiol],” Leonard Marshall, former 12-year NFL defensive lineman, said in a press release for HERB.

But what do doctors say about the potential lift of the marijuana ban? Mike Hart, M.D., a doctor in Canada who has conducted medical marijuana research, thinks the NFL should allow players the option of using marijuana for pain management. He points to success stories like Eugene Monroe, a former offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, who told the Washington Post that transitioning from opioids to marijuana has not only helped his pain, but also made him more functional in his daily life.

Hart says players don’t currently have many viable options. “They’re often getting some poorly defined explanation about the costs and benefits of using different pharmaceuticals for their pain, particularly opioids,” says Hart. He believes athletes should find a way to manage their pain that is safest and healthiest for them. “A lot of people are using cannabis and finding it to be a very safe and effective alternative to what they were using previously,” says Hart.

Daniel Clauw, M.D., a doctor and scientist who studies pain management at the University of Michigan, disagrees. He doesn’t think opioids should be the first answer to pain. But he doesn’t think marijuana should be, either.

“If an athlete develops acute pain following an injury, then non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen would generally be the best option,” says Clauw. “That’s because there’s typically inflammation associated with athletic injuries, and that class of drug treats both inflammation and pain.” Clauw also recommends that athletes apply ice and heat to an injury and do general movement training to reduce pain.

These are, however, short term-options for pain management — which is why Dr. Kevin Boehnke, M.D., a researcher at the University of Michigan, believes that switching from opioids to medical marijuana might result in better health outcomes. While he says it’s a complicated topic, ultimately “the league should consider marijuana as a potential way to help athletes who put their bodies on the line every game.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas

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