The National Football League has a strict drug policy that doesn’t allow for any ifs, ands, or buts. Well, at least for now.
In an interview earlier this month, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stated that he wouldn’t reject the eventual possibility of NFL players using medical marijuana to treat pain in states that allowed it, which is now numbering 20 as well as the District of Columbia. "I don't know what's going to develop as far as the next opportunity for medicine to evolve and to help either deal with pain or help deal with injuries," Goodell said, "but we will continue to support the evolution of medicine."
If he does allow THC use in the NFL, Goodell will be on the side of history; the two teams playing in this year's Super Bowl hail from Seattle and Denver, the first two cities in the United States to fully legalize marijuana. It'll the the league's first Marijuana Bowl.
But perhaps the medical advancement of marijuana might go beyond the treatment of pain and inflammation that Goodell might have envisioned. A growing body of evidence is now showing that the drug has the potential to actually treat a health problem that has been giving the NFL a bad rap these days; brain injuries.
One study conducted by the Hebrew University in Israel in 2001 found that brain injured mice naturally produce a cannabinoid—the family of chemicals that’s the active ingredient in marijuana—to protect against further damage. Brain injured mice that were administered an extra boost of a synthetic form of this cannabinoid displayed even more protection against brain injury and better clinical recovery. According to a review of medical marijuana use in the United Sates, cannabis is known to contain more than 100 different types of cannabinoids.
Brain injuries in general, including those that arise from playing football, likely develop from the primary hit as well from subsequent swelling and release of neurochemicals, which have a toxic effect. This secondary outcome can actually be more damaging than the original blow to the head, said one of the authors of the mouse study, Dr. Esther Shohami, to ABC News.
Shohami theorized that the therapeutic effect of the cannbinoid that her team studied, called 2-AG, likely stems from its ability to reduce levels of a toxic endogenous molecule, glutamate, as well as harmful free radicals and a chemical that induces inflammation (TNF). It also doesn’t hurt that the cannabinoid increases blood flow to the brain. This combined effect is ideal in minimizing further damage to the brain after impact injury initially occurred.
While Shohami told ABC News that there shouldn’t be an issue with human patients using a drug based on this family of cannabinoid, she cautioned that a dose would need to be exactly measured and timed, which makes smoking marijuana too variable to be considered as a form of treatment. The amount of cannabinoid that is needed to elicit a therapeutic effect can be surprisingly low, as demonstrated in a more recent study by Yosef Sarne of Tel Aviv University. Sarne's team showed that useful doses of THC—another name for the active cannabinoid—can be 1,000 to 10,000 times less than what people typically get from smoking a joint. Doses administered to mice up to a week before or up to three days after a brain injury produced biochemical responses that protected the brain and sustained cognitive function.
Sarne and colleagues proposed the possibility that THC was actually acting as a pre-emptive form of minute damage to the brain that readied the brain for a more severe assault. In this sense, it might be possible to use the drug to ready the brain before a surgery that might cause interrupted blood flow. Perhaps the evolution of sports medicine might even encompass receivers taking a little dose before kick off — just in case they encounter 1600 lbs of force administered to the head in the form of a typical tackle.