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Why Won’t the NFL Let Players Use Medical Marijuana?

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A guy who hurts his back working in a warehouse in Cleveland can get a prescription and use medical marijuana to manage the pain. A guy who hurts his back playing for the Cleveland Browns can't.

During his acceptance speech this past summer at the NFL Pro Football Hall-of-Fame induction ceremony, former Detroit Lions’ star Calvin Johnson explained why he retired after his ninth season in 2015 at age 30.

It was the pain he had to deal with—the reliance on the prescription pain medication by league policy to keep going—that caused him to quit.

“In my first year in the NFL I suffered a serious back injury,” Johnson said in Canton. “It was so bad at the moment [that] I couldn’t feel my legs. And I thought my career would be over.” Over time, “The pain began to take a toll on my body and my quality of life, and it wasn’t getting any better.”

“When I got to the league [in 2007], [there] was opioid abuse,” he said in a 2019 interview. “You really could go in the training room and get what you wanted. I can get Vicodin, I can get Oxy[contin]. It was too available. I used Percocet and stuff like that. And I did not like the way that made me feel. I had my preferred choice of medicine. Cannabis.”

Today, the NFL has a marijuana problem. But not the one you’d think.

Today’s NFL still bans the use of marijuana by players. But this league rule goes above local laws. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, only six are in states where prescription medical marijuana is not legal (Green Bay Packers, Texans and Cowboys in Texas, Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts, and Tennessee Titans). And even those states are likely to have marijuana health care programs available soon, too.

So why are NFL players unable to access the same healthcare as their fellow citizens?

Here’s a for instance: I live in the Cleveland area, and Ohio has legalized medical marijuana with a required a prescription from a licensed physician. There is a marijuana prescription dispensary less than a half-mile from my house. If I get a lower back injury, and want to use marijuana for pain management, I can see a doctor, get a prescription, and hit the dispensary near my house to get it filled.

If Cleveland Browns’ quarterback Baker Mayfield has a similar back pain problem, he cannot use the legal medical marijuana system in Ohio where he works without having to hide such use from league testing. And despite the testing regime being relaxed through a recent collective bargaining agreement, testing is still done: players can be randomly tested THC during the period between the start of training camp (early April) and each team’s first preseason game (early August).

The penalties for testing positive aren’t draconian: NFL players can’t be suspended from games over positive tests. And if they do test positive, they’re evaluated for whether they need a drug treatment plan. Which is sensible enough: There’s a difference between using marijuana for pain management and having a drug problem.

But weirdly, the league simultaneously fines them. Testing positive for prohibited substances results in a half-week salary loss for first violations, a one-week salary loss for second violations, a two-week salary loss for third violations and a three-week salary loss for fourth and subsequent violations.

Why wasn’t a more open policy passed between the league and the players union in their recent CBA? The usual reason: Money.

The NFL has new revenue streams coming online (sports betting, fantasy football links, more TV outlets, and extra games). Players generally want two things from management: either money or better working conditions. The NFL thought that by giving a bit on testing, they could hold onto more of the revenue. And by not giving away everything on testing, they’d still have a card to play at the next showdown.

This ploy worked: The players approved the CBA by just 60 votes.

There may be another reason for the NFL not to just approve of medical marijuana use: The culture of part of its customer base.

The league had a problem with its older and more conservative white fans over kneeling during the national anthem. Maybe the NFL is worried that de-penalizing marijuana use among its workforce (which is 70 percent African-American) would not sit well with the crankier parts of its customer base (which is 57 percent white).

But the data suggests if there was ever an American employee group that might have a use for marijuana as a healthcare option it’s professional athletes generally and NFL players specifically. Their football playing employee status requires they have to deal with more pain than most, a shorter career because of work-place related injuries, and the potential for catastrophic work-related health problems (such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) down the line.

Peter Grinspoon, M.D, currently practices as a primary care physician at an inner-city clinic in Boston and is on staff at Massachusetts General Hospital. He also teaches medicine at Harvard Medical School. He summed up last year how marijuana is not some magic potion for medical treatment, but does have some good properties for pain management.

“The most common use for medical marijuana in the United States is for pain control,” Grinspoon wrote. “While marijuana isn’t strong enough for severe pain (for example, post-surgical pain or a broken bone), it is quite effective for the chronic pain that plagues millions of Americans, especially as they age. Part of its allure is that it is clearly safer than opiates (it is impossible to overdose on and far less addictive) and it can take the place of NSAIDs such as Advil or Alleve, if people can’t take them due to problems with their kidneys or ulcers or GERD [heartburn].”

If the NFL were smart, it would use one problem to address another. Eugene Monroe, a former NFL offensive tackle who played from 2009 through 2015, thinks that opening up to medical marijuana could be a way to prevent the kind of opioid addiction that has long been common among football players trying to keep playing while managing pain.

On his website, Monroe writes, “I’m calling for the NFL to remove marijuana from the banned substances list; fund medical marijuana research, especially as it relates to CTE; and stop overprescribing addictive and harmful opioids.”

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