America at Large: Cannabis use high on NFL agenda

Rather than using presciption painkillers many are now advocating marijuana

The Cannabis World Congress and Business Expo took place in New York City last week. In between workshops about capitalising on the forthcoming "Green Rush" and advice about selecting and protecting your brand, there was a panel featuring former NFL players. Their very presence one more illustration of how the drug has transitioned from the counter culture to the mainstream.

While the likes of iconic Chicago Bear Jim McMahon ostensibly came to address the potential use of cannabinoids in treating and preventing symptoms associated with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and brain injury, the big takeaway was that many would also prefer the league to stop pushing highly addictive painkillers and to start prescribing weed instead.

“Pharmaceutical drugs like Vicodin and Percocet made me angry and irritable, frustrated, didn’t get rid of any of the pain, made it difficult to sleep, increased my heart rate and made me feel crazy,” said former Jacksonville Jaguars’ offensive tackle Eben Britton. “On the other side of that there’s cannabis that helped me sleep, put me into a healing state of being where I was relieved from stress and anxiety as well as feeling the pain relief.”

Britton echoed the experience and the opinion of a growing number of his erstwhile colleagues. They contend a substance that is prohibited by the NFL ameliorated their struggles whereas popping legally prescribed medication only exacerbated them. Indeed, McMahon testifies that cannabis helped him to overcome a crippling addiction to pain meds that was an unfortunate legacy of his playing career.

New argument

This is not a new argument. However, with 24 states now offering some sort of legally available version of the drug, an issue that has been percolating around the sport for a while gained fresh momentum recently thanks to an outspoken lineman named

Eugene Monroe

, the first active player to call for the NFL to remove marijuana from the banned substances list.

“Taking the T Train is nothing more than a bunch of really large guys waiting to pull their pants down to get shot in the butt with Toradol, a powerful painkiller that will help them make it through the game and its aftermath,” wrote Monroe in an insightful essay for The Players’ Tribune in which, amongst other things, he described how teams currently help suffering players. “Some guys don’t feel any pain for two days. Of course, that’s the point of these drugs – they block out the pain and reduce inflammation. But they also temporarily mask injury. That’s not a good thing if you get hurt during a game – you might need to address your injuries right away. But you feel nothing, so you do nothing.”

In a league where most contracts are not guaranteed and those who don’t play on Sunday risk getting cut, individuals will, inevitably, take what the club gives them in order to be able to suit up, regardless of the impact on their long-term health. Monroe wants to derail the T Train because he has witnessed too many of his team-mates from college and the pros subsequently end up addicted to opioids that were too freely administered. In this aspect of his campaign, he has some unlikely bedfellows.

“I’d like to see more attention in the congress on this whole unique aspect and dangers and hazards that are true in professional sports, especially the contact sports,” said Senator John McCain who castigated the various leagues for not doing enough to educate their players about the risk involved. “Why don’t we make people aware of the dangers of these painkillers, of getting hooked on them? Why don’t we do a better job of awareness?”

It’s estimated that 2 million Americans are currently addicted to prescription pain medication and these drugs caused nearly 19,000 deaths by overdose in 2014 alone. In light of those disturbing statistics, it seems ludicrous that a linebacker who chooses to smoke marijuana after a game rather than swilling a bottle of painkillers risks being entered into a 90-day intervention programme for a first positive test. Not to mention that further offences will lead to fines and suspensions.

Before the Super Bowl earlier this year, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league's medical authorities were continuing to investigate the possibility of recognising the pain-relieving qualities of marijuana and perhaps making it legal. Since those are the very same physicians who, for years, tried to obfuscate the truth about concussion and brain injury in the sport, that didn't exactly inspire confidence in those hoping to effect change sooner rather than later.

Headline-generating views

Monroe was recently released by the

Baltimore

Ravens in a move they deny had anything to do with his headline-generating views on changing the sport’s drug laws. Whether or not another club will sign him up for the forthcoming season may give some indication about how much genuine support is out there for his campaign. In the meantime, he’s put his money where his mouth is, donating $80,000 to universities researching how cannabidiol can benefit gridiron players.

“Nineteen players were suspended last season for testing positive for “substances of abuse,” and for some, their careers may be over,” said Monroe. “Why? For using something that can actually help people? How can a league so casual about the use of addictive opioids take such a hard line on a drug that might provide a safer alternative? We must make a change.”