Several former NFL players recently toured a cannabis facility specializing in cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis known for it’s anti inflammatory and calming effects. As part of the Denver Broncos Alumni Association, they are learning more about how CBD can ease the multiple health conditions that plague them in their retirement.
“Every day, I wake up in pain, from my ankles to my neck,” said Ebenezer Ekuban, a former defensive end who played for nine seasons. “It’s part of the territory. I know what I signed up for.”
The focus of the trip was to learn more about cannabidiol (CBD). Some data suggests that the cannabinoid can help with anxiety, pain, nausea and depression, and the federal government holds a patent on its neuroprotective properties. Newer studies have shown its effectiveness on treating inflammatory conditions.
The real effects of an NFL career have only recently gained some transparency. For decades, medical professionals have been treating pain from physical trauma with prescription drugs, which can include opioid painkillers, NSAID pain relievers and muscle relaxers. The mental demands of professional football can also call for anti-anxiety medications.
Unfortunately, these injuries are not temporary, and retired NFL athletes continue to take these medications years after their career has ended. Opioid painkillers were mainly developed for temporary pain, but these athletes require long-term treatment. A published study found the rate that NFL players consume opioids is four times what the rest of the population consumes. Both opioid painkillers and NSAIDs can cause kidney damage over time, but cannabis could be an alternative to these medications.
“This pain is never going away. My body is damaged,” said Eugene Monroe, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens. “Managing it with pills was slowly killing me. Now I’m able to function and be extremely efficient by figuring out how to use different formulations of cannabis.”
Monroe was released from his contract three weeks after he openly admitted to using cannabis to treat his injuries. Since then, he has become one of the most vocal proponents of medical marijuana within the NFL community.
Players have had a difficult time convincing owners and NFL officials that cannabis is a safe and effective alternative treatment. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has openly expressed his skepticism of marijuana as medication.
“To date, [NFL medical advisors] 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,” Goodell said. “If they do, we’re certainly going to consider that.”
Sue Sisley, a doctor who serves on the advisory board for the Korey Stringer Institute, suggested that the health and safety of the players may not be best served through prescription drugs.
“For instance, these players obviously receive mega-doses of opioids easily from their trainers and team docs. But when they want to seek out what they believe is a safer, less toxic alternative like cannabis, they’re fined and sanctioned.”
Monroe has experienced first hand the benefits of cannabis, and knows the science could support a change in NFL policy. “I would hope that the NFL stands by what it says it stands for — player health and safety, first and foremost,” said Monroe. “…there’s enough info out there right now for the NFL to make a smart decision.”
Last week during the NFL’s Annual League Meeting in Phoenix, the 32 team owners held a private meeting to discuss things like Commissioner Roger Goodell’s future contract and succession planning, the practice of investigating off-field misconduct, and the NFL’s position on cannabis. One in particular, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, was extremely vocal in his support for dropping the prohibition of marijuana use in the league.
According to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, Jones would like the league to stop disciplining players who test positive for cannabis usage. Deciding to remove the ban on marijuana, which is currently banned under the league’s substance abuse policy, isn’t quite that easy though. Neither the owners, nor the NFL can make this decision without incorporating the process into the future collective bargaining talks.
Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. (Pro Football Spot photo)
While these talks will most likely not occur until the current NFL and NFLPA collective bargaining agreement expires in 2020, the support from one of the league’s most powerful owners is a giant step forward. Jones, having had three Dallas Cowboy defenders suspended in the past due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy, is no stranger to the NFL’s strict stance on cannabis. Currently, the NFL’s threshold for a positive marijuana test is 35 nanograms per milliliter, the strictest out of the four major sports.
- MLB – 50 nanograms per milliliter
- NBA – In the NBA, urine samples are submitted to the World Anti-Doping Agency, according to the collective-bargaining agreement, and WADA has a threshold of 150 ng/ml.
- NHL – Cannabis is not restricted or tested.
While the NFL’s testing procedure for marijuana may still be the strictest, the league has reduced the penalties for positive tests. Multiple failed tests however, can still get you banned from ever playing in the league again. Because of this, many players and cannabis advocates see the current standards and restrictions as unfair and potentially dangerous. As it turns out, science may very well be on Jones’s and the players’ side.
Recreational cannabis use is currently legal in eight U.S. States, as well as the District of Columbia. In 20 additional states, medical marijuana use is permitted. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, NFL players are banned from using cannabis under any circumstances, including medical treatment. The long-term use of drugs with highly addictive properties, like the opiates prescribed for common aches and pains suffered by many professional football players, put them at serious risk of drug dependency, overdose, and potentially even death.
Because of this, many former NFL players have been vocal in criticizing the substance abuse policy. In an interview with Deadspin regarding the widespread use of opiates in the league, former NFL offensive tackle Eugene Monroe said this:
“There’s a stigma associated with cannabis. But I think that stigma is loosened and removed as people become educated that cannabis really has medical value. It has real applications, and I believe that application can also be included in sports.”
Cannabis has been shown to be extremely effective at treating the symptoms of chronic pain. The National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering published an extensive literature review earlier this year showing “substantial evidence that cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain in adults.”
For Jerry Jones and many others, bringing up the issue of removing cannabis from the list of banned substances in the NFL could not have come at a better time. While understanding that a more lenient drug policy will mean concessions on the part of the NFLPA, an initial dialogue is an important step.
“We sent the union last spring, several pages or lists of issues that we wanted to address,” Goodell said in February. “As the league and as ownership and I expect – and we put on that list drug policy as one of those issues – so we would love to engage, but I think what we’re seeing is a reason why we should all sit down and get at the table, begin negotiations so that if we want to reach a different policy on either the drug policy or any other matter, we can all begin that earlier and do it in a way that’s responsible.”
Possibly the biggest medical cannabis advocate in professional sports, Eugene Monroe was cut yesterday by the Baltimore Ravens. Monroe was the eighth overall pick in the 2009 draft and has regularly been a leader at his position.
According to Raven’s official website, Monroe was released for his health and salary – not his commitment to medical cannabis. Staff writer Ryan Mink stated,
“Monroe had surgery to repair a torn labrum (shoulder) this offseason, and used the time off to become the first active NFL player to openly campaign for the use of medical marijuana. The Ravens did not rally behind the cause.”
In his usual classy fashion, Monroe went to Twitter to express his gratitude towards Ravens fans and unwavering commitment to advocacy in medical cannabis.
We continue to commend Eugene Monroe for sticking his neck out for medical cannabis, even if it means putting his career in jeopardy.