NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle first introduced a loose recreational drug code in 1971. Drug testing in the NFL began in 1982 and suspensions for drug use followed in 1989. Today, while medical marijuana is legal in 28 states and DC and recreational marijuana is legal in 8 states and DC, the NFL continues its draconian drug policy on pot partly because of stigma and partly because of the league’s robust alcohol sponsorships. But, while the suspensions and fines continue, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), its players’ union, is considering language that would amend the collective bargaining agreement to allow a “less punitive” approach to recreational marijuana use. I urge the league to not only take a less punitive approach to recreational marijuana use, but also to exercise compassion and take a nonpunitive approach to medical marijuana use.
Many players in the NFL use marijuana for medical issues. The NFL suspended Seantrel Henderson ten games after he violated the league’s substance abuse policy by smoking pot to treat Crohn’s disease. Henderson found out he had Crohn’s last year. He has since been suspended twice - once for four games and again for ten games. Henderson had parts of his intestines removed surgically. He is clearly suffering. And, marijuana is widely known as the only effective treatment for Crohn’s disease that does not have terrible medical side effects. Clearly, the league should allow an exemption for players that use marijuana medicinally.
There are many more reasons that players use marijuana or could use marijuana medicinally. For example, former NFL player Eugene Monroe retired from the NFL because of accumulating pain from injuries and the lack of an exemption from the NFL to treat himself with marijuana. Monroe recently donated $80,000 towards research on marijuana to show the NFL, among other things, that CBD oil from the cannabis plant can treat and protect players from traumatic brain injuries. There is a ton of research showing that both THC and CBD play a positive role in rehabilitating and protecting the brain. If the NFL is serious about player safety and keeping its former players alive then they should immediately consider the evidence that marijuana is an effective medicine.
Some players in the NFL use marijuana to manage pain. The league currently allows doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers to the players for pain management. As we all know, opioids are highly addictive and have many awful side effects. Players have expressed an interest in treating pain with marijuana instead of opioids in order to avoid the side effects and addiction. Former NFL player Kyle Turley is one of them. Turley, since retiring, has become a vocal advocate for loosening the NFL’s drug policy. Turley took opioids since he blew out his knee in college and has been treating a brain injury with medications such as Depakote and Wellbutrin. He has expressed that the drugs gave him both suicidal and homicidal thoughts to the point where he was considering jumping out of a window at his college Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Surely, the NFL wants to avoid more suicides among players. There should have been a rush to find help for players suffering from traumatic brain injuries after Junior Seau committed suicide. But, the NFL is stubborn and dedicated to profit.
A simple answer for the league would be to bring in a group of medical marijuana experts and put together a list of medical issues for which its players can use marijuana. Then, they should accept petitions from players seeking a medical exemption from the drug policy and have the same panel consider each of them, offering a medical exemption to the drug policy for any petition deemed valid. If the league is truly serious about player safety and wants to protect the game going forward it will take my suggestions seriously. No player should get suspended or fined by the NFL for marijuana use if they have a valid reason for using it.
I understand that the league is under tremendous pressure to keep its head in the sand on marijuana use among players. The social stigma still exists, the plant is still illegal in many states and at the federal level and the league makes a lot of money from its alcohol sponsors. However, we are in a new era and player safety is a serious matter. More and more parents are saying that their kids are not allowed to play football. More people are taking notice of the tremendous amount of abuse the game puts on players’ bodies and brains. Even the NFL itself launched a huge, well-funded initiative around player safety, brain issues, etc. But, that is not enough. If the NFL is serious about its players, then they must include medical marijuana use as one of its solutions to injury issues. I am not suggesting that the league be a revolutionary. Much of that work is already done. The league just needs to get current with the dominating opinion on medical marijuana.