As you sit down to watch the Dallas Cowboys play the Detroit Lions on “Monday Night Football” this evening, what you may not know is that a change may just be coming to NFL’s characteristically rigid stance when it comes to medical marijuana. Read on to find out the exciting news that could be the first step towards acceptance by the NFL of cannabis as a safe option for pain and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
NFL Change of Heart about Cannabis?
On November 9th, the National Football League Players’ Association (NFLPA) announced that it will be “actively studying” the benefits of medical cannabis for players as a tool for managing pain. The announcement came just days after the election, although apparently the NFLPA had been considering launching their investigation long before results (in which eight states changed their laws concerning cannabis) had come in.
According to the Washington Post, the NFLPA will form a committee to take a serious look at the “use of marijuana as a pain-management mechanism, among other things.” Based on these findings, the union may decide to promote lifting the ban on cannabis for players in the league. Doing so may be difficult as long as cannabis remains on the “Schedule 1” list at the federal level, however. And what makes it more tricky is that in order for any policy changes to occur regarding marijuana both the NFL and NFLPA have to be in agreement.
“Marijuana is still governed by our collective bargaining agreement,” NFLPA’s George Atallah told the Washington Post on November 9th. “And while some states have moved in a more progressive direction, that fact still remains.”
Players Continue to Suffer Under Cannabis Ban
There is no denying that professional football players, perhaps more than any other athlete, put a lot on the line in terms of their health in order to play in the major leagues.
The feature film Concussion, starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, put both the devastating side effects and the prevalence of head injuries within the NFL in the forefront of the American consciousness when it hit theatres in 2015, although retired players have been displaying neurological side effects for years. Thanks to Dr. Omalu, however, these once mysterious side effects now have a name: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopath, or CTE. An in-depth report about CTE and how cannabis may help with this condition can be found in a previous UPG article HERE.
Another huge issue for players is, sadly, pain. A 2011 Washington University study found that retired NFL players are “four times more likely to abuse prescription painkillers than the general population. It also found that more than half of the players who used pain meds while playing football went on to abuse them after retirement. Some of the dozens of the sometimes highly-addictive, toxic prescription pain medications that are routinely prescribed to players include Hydrocodone, Vicodin, Percocet, Toradol, and Celebrex, just to name a few.
NFL Players Pressure for Reform
One outspoken former player who shared his story as part of a panel discussion at the 2016 United Patients Group Conference and in a live interview in August was Brandon Haw.
“After football, I had a lot of different problems with brain trauma,” admits Haw, who described himself as “happy go lucky” and fairly even-keel prior to the onset of CTE. “…I considered [then] what was happening to me as getting ‘tougher’ but maybe I was angrier inside, more inconsistent, more violent, very depressed at times, and more uncontrollable.”
Haw began using a moderate amount of medical cannabis and gradually noticed big improvements in his behavior. Eventually he went on to attend Oaksterdam University in Oakland, California, an institution dedicated to all aspects of medical marijuana education, from growing to extracting to specific medicinal uses.
“A lot of people smoke to get high,” says Haw. “I smoke to be myself.”
Players, both retired and active, are pushing harder than ever these days for cannabis reform within the National Football League. In fact, just three weeks after the NFLPA made their announcement, there was word that Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson, who uses medical cannabis for severe Crohn’s Disease, may appeal a 10-game suspension for “substance abuse.” If the NFL denies his appeal, he may take them to court. Henderson underwent surgery in January to remove two and a half feet of his colon and another in April to reattach his intestines.
“Merciful or not, there is no medical exception that the NFL will accept,” Henderson’s agent Brian Fettner said in an interview with ESPN. “ It doesn’t matter that Seantrel is battling Crohn’s disease, and has had his intestines outside his body…if you digest the cannabis, that’s it.”
Still, the NFLPA’s decision could be a sign of the times. Last month, Arkansas, North Dakota and Florida voted to allow medical marijuana while three more (California, Nevada and Massachusetts) passed laws making it legal for recreational use as well. It could be that pressure from both football fans and NFL players alike is finally paying off.