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The NFL Appears More Ready to Re-examine Its Marijuana Policy

Only a year ago, Commissioner Goodell wrote off any possible changes to the NFL’s substance abuse policy with regard to marijuana. Today, those changes are now seeming more possible than ever before.

NFL Labor Agreement Signed Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a two-part article about the NFL’s over reliance on prescription drugs for pain management and its inability to see how its own marijuana substance abuse policy was hurting its players instead of helping them.

At the time of that writing, the NFL’s stance was rigid and archaic. “Medical experts have not recommended making a change or revisiting our collectively-bargained policy and approach [between the NFL and NFL Players Association] related to marijuana, and our position on its use remains consistent with federal law and workplace policies across the country,” stated Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL.

A lot has happened in the past 12 months. And the NFL might finally be listening to the growing chorus of medicinal supporters all around them.

Nonprofits like Athletes For Care are forming with the objective of promoting a holistic and alternative approaches to athlete wellness. Cannabis is but one part of their platform, and there is a growing sense that these athletes aren’t alone in their quest for health and longevity in their sports.

A crucial and in-depth study of former American football players across all levels of play revealed cases of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in 87% of all players examined. Even more damning, CTE was found in 99% of former NFL players’ brains. Only one in 111 NFL players did not show signs of the disease.

The NFL can not afford to wait until the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement to address its marijuana policy as it pertains to medicinal use. Players are understanding the dangers of playing at this level. They are educating themselves and empowering themselves like never before. They will quit before the age of 30 if they feel the risks outweigh the benefits of playing in the league.

Cannabis’ public perception is shifting quicker than before. It’s becoming impossible to ignore the reputable studies, including one from our very own FDA, that are reporting positive medical benefits of cannabis (CBDs in particular) in both preventing and alleviating symptoms related to head trauma.

Unlike Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is a Schedule 1 designated substance, cannabinoids (CBDs) have yet to be designated by the DEA. That gives CBDs a legitimate chance of being designated medically useful.

Retired football players are four times more likely than the general population to use opioids, so it’s in the NFL’s best interest to allow its players to try other forms of pain management. The way the NFL is dealing with pain in a 100% chance of injury sport could become a PR nightmare for them if they don’t accept a serious culture shift.

The NFLPA has taken matters into its own hands and launched its own study of marijuana as a pain management tool and hopes its findings will strengthen its case for allowing marijuana medicinally within the league. Just last week, the NFL wrote to the NFLPA asking if they could join forces on research into this matter. The NFLPA has yet to respond.

Last January, DeMaurice Smith of the NFLPA said they were preparing a proposal to the league that would result in a “less punitive” approach to recreational marijuana use by players. “I do think that issues of addressing it more in a treatment and less punitive measure is appropriate,” Smith said. “I think it’s important to look at whether there are addiction issues. And I think it’s important to not simply assume recreation is the reason it’s being used.”

Perhaps the current federal investigation by the DEA into the NFL’s use and misuse of prescription drugs finally has the league re-examining how it’s going to allow its players to choose how to manage their pain.

Estimates between 50% and 80% of current NFL players are using Cannabis in some form. Today, 29 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. 22 of the NFL’s 32 teams play their home games in those jurisdictions. A major hurdle in negotiating league marijuana policy is that it’s federally illegal still and players must travel often, which increases risk of arrest.

Roger Goodell has proven his built in ignorance on the matter by overly focusing on the dangers of smoking while forgetting that the most effective forms of CBD come in safer forms like vaporizers and tinctures. “Listen, you’re ingesting smoke, so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say,” the league commissioner said.

“It does have [an] addictive nature. There are a lot of compounds in marijuana that may not be healthy for the players long term. All of those things have to be considered. And it’s not as simple as someone just wants to feel better after a game. We really want to help our players in that circumstance but I want to make sure that the negative consequences aren’t something that is something that we’ll be held accountable for some years down the road.”

I’m not going to spend time refuting his ill founded beliefs, but if you want learn more about facts versus fiction with regard to the dangers of Cannabis, please read my article from last year.

To his credit, Goodell seems more open to at least learning more about the subject. The NFL’s request to join the NFLPA’s medicinal marijuana study reflects that.

“To date, they haven’t said this is a change we think you should make that’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our players,” he said recently. “If they do, we’re certainly going to consider that.”

In 2014, the league and union agreed to modifications of the threshold for what constituted a positive test. The level of 15 nanograms of THC per milliliter of urine or blood was relaxed to 35 nanograms for a positive text.

Since the league has been open to modification in the past, I think the writing is on the wall for more sweeping changes in the near future. Maybe not this year, but definitely before the next collective bargaining agreement in 2020.