This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of HIGH TIMES.
We already know that pot is nonaddictive. With the evidence mounting that it can aid recovery from brain injury – and provide highly effective stress relief – it’s time to let medical marijuana take the field.
By Samantha Nicholas
It happens a few times each NFL season: During a game, a violent collision occurs. Play stops, the fans go quiet, medical personnel gather around the fallen player and TV announcers become deadly serious. Usually they say something like, “This puts it all in perspective.”
Puts what in perspective? That pro football players are bigger and faster than ever? That when they collide, the results are frightening? Here’s some perspective: The kinetic energy generated by athletes of this size and speed has out-distanced the ability of the human body to withstand traumatic injury.
Certainly, it’s nothing that the National Football League is unaware of. Last June, more than 2,000 former players filed a lawsuit that could potentially cost the league billions. The suit claims that the NFL hid information that linked football-related head trauma to permanent brain injuries. Thousands of former players state that the head trauma they sustained as players has diminished their quality of life, with effects including (but not limited to) chronic physical pain, depression, dementia and suicide.
The underlying truth of the lawsuit is that the key to winning in the NFL is keeping your players on the field. Top sports-medicine professionals try to make sure that happens. It’s not uncommon for players to hide injuries in order to maintain their playing status. As a result, opioid use is rampant in the NFL.
In January 2011, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis released a report indicating that retired NFL players misuse opioid pain medications at a rate more than four times that of the general population. Why? Because these same players misused painkillers during their NFL careers.
In interviews with 644 former players, 52 percent said they used prescription pain medication during their playing days. Of those, 71 percent said they had misused the drugs then. Furthermore, 63 percent who used prescription pain pills while playing obtained drugs like Vicodin, codeine, and oxycodone from a nonmedical source: a teammate, coach, trainer, family member, dealer or the Internet.
But woe to the player who chooses marijuana as his drug of choice. The NFL imposes the harshest penalties in all of professional sports for using pot. Fines and suspensions are ramped up to four games for a second failed drug test and a season-long ban for three failed tests. Harsh indeed, considering what 18-year veteran Lomas Brown says. Now an ESPN analyst, Brown states that half of the league’s players smoke pot; in 1985, his rookie year, Brown estimated that as much as 90 percent of the league toked up. Moreover, players entering the league from college have extensive experience with marijuana. CBS Sports reported that 40 percent of draft-eligible prospects failed tests for pot, while ESPN reports that 70 percent of prospects at the NFL Combine – the annual football skills showcase for prospects – admitted to pot use.
Ostensibly, the league’s marijuana policy is designed to reflect the federal government’s stance on pot. The NFL likes to believe that football, as America’s most popular sport, embodies traditional American values, whatever they are. Watching the pregame festivities, one could easily conclude that love of God and the military are high on the list. Marijuana, obviously, isn’t.
But maybe it’s time for the league to reexamine its policy, especially in light of recent research. As far back as 1998, doctors have been exploring the effect of pot on the brain. Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the renowned scientist who first isolated and synthesized THC, has designed a cannabinoid medication that blocks the neural damage of traumatic head injury. William Beaver, a professor of pharmacology at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, said that if tests confirm the drug’s effectiveness, it would be, “beyond any doubt, the most medically significant use ever made of marijuana.”
Powerful cannabis extracts may also offer relief and better recovery for players who have suffered concussions. Moreover, emerging evidence indicates that cannabinoids may play a role in slowing the progression of certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease, which NFL players are three times more likely to die from than the general population.
Beyond head trauma, the case for cannabis as a simple recovery agent from the stresses that the body undergoes in practice and in games can easily be made. In addition to paying strict attention to nutrition, players need time to adapt and compensate for their workload. Rest isn’t only a matter of sleep; the absence of stress is essential. A body under stress cannot rebuild itself. Cannabis allows deeper and longer sleep without the stress levels that booze or pills induce.
And here’s an even simpler argument for cannabis: A study conducted at Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland concluded that pot use is not a contributing causal factor in injuries requiring hospitalization – in fact, it may even protect users against the likelihood of sustaining such injuries. After interviews with 486 patients, the study reported: “Alcohol use in the six hours prior to injury was associated with [an elevated] relative risk compared with no alcohol use. Cannabis use was inversely related to risk of injury.”
Considering that countless players have experienced off-the-field mishaps and subsequent legal problems at places like strip clubs, isn’t it possible that the league might prefer their employees to kick back at home, play video games or simply fall asleep in front of the TV, rather than risking mayhem in a drinking atmosphere?
Mike Florio, founder of profootballtalk.com and a former ESPN writer, told HIGH TIMES in November 2009 that team owners and management are hardly unaware that their players smoke pot. “It might be fair to say that the NFL’s current All-Pro team consists of mainly pot smokers and recreational drug users,” Florio said. “Most teams don’t care, as long as players perform on the field. It only becomes a problem if the player can’t step aside long enough to pass the annual drug test for substance abuse.”
Sounds like “Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t get caught.” If a player’s pot use is found out, however, he can expect to be drug-tested as many as 10 times a month in addition to all the standard penalties.
Perversely, though, teams are hardly opposed to drafting a top college player with a taste for pot. Why would they be? They’re able to pay him less, since marijuana use allegedly indicates unreliability or poor work values. In 2010, Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots was one of the nation’s top college players. But he wasn’t selected until the fourth round of the NFL draft because of multiple failed drug tests in college. An NFL team personnel director told the Boston Globe: “These kids, they don’t get it. He cost himself a lot of money.’’
Interesting choice of words: Hernandez cost himself money – the league’s drug policy had nothing to do with it. Nor did the personnel director seem particularly concerned with how cannabis might actually improve Hernandez’s health. And yet, given the kinds of injuries “these kids” sustain during the course of their careers, that’s what the NFL should be focused on most: the health of its players.