Policy/Biz

The Weed Bowl: Seahawks', Broncos' Home States Have Legalized Marijuana, But The Flaws Of NFL Drug Policy Persist

Marijuana's Place In The NFL Is Questionable
The NFL drug policy is put under question as players seek brain trauma treatments. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The National Football League (NFL) has held the spotlight for a number of reasons, including drug abuse, aggressive behavior, domestic violence, and head trauma. It's drug policy has been hurting their players for decades, too. On Sunday, the organization's morally questionable practices will face scrutiny again as the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, teams from the only two states in the country that permit both recreational and medical marijuana use, face off. In preparation for what many call "The Weed Bowl," they’ll strap into shoulder pads, lace up their cleats, stretch tired muscles, wrap sprained ankles, and lastly, secure hard plastic helmets over their traumatized heads.

Today's game marks the first time two teams coming from legalized recreational marijuana markets will play. Washington implemented its recreational marijuana program in July and Colorado implemented it in October 2012. Two weeks before Colorado became marijuana friendly, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning had the foresight to purchase 21 Papa John’s franchises, and recently announced the success he’s seen in the pizza industry.

“I’ve gotten to know some of the folks here in Colorado,” Manning told The Washington Post. “There’s some different laws out here in Colorado. Pizza business is pretty good out here, believe it or not, due to some recent law changes. So when you come to a different place, you’ve kind of got to learn everything that comes with it.”

The culture is changing and although drugs have always been a subculture of professional sports, whether it was human growth hormones (HGH) or marijuana use, there have also been abuses to policy. On Friday, the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) announced revisions to their substance abuse and performance-enhancing drug policies, with a focus on when testing would be done and how violations would be handled. For example, a player's first violation of the steroid policy results in sitting out for four games; a second time merits a 10-game suspension without pay. If a player violates the marijuana policy, they’ll be referred to a substance abuse program and face up to one-year banishment from the NFL. Meanwhile, a player who is arrested for driving under the influence will be suspended for two games.

"With these changes, the NFL and NFLPA once again have the finest and most comprehensive set of drug policies in sports," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.

How Marijuana Could Benefit The NFL

“If I were a coach for a team I’d set a curfew so that my players don’t go out and get drunk and in trouble,” the managing editor of Marijuana.com Al Olson, who recently left his senior editor position at NBC, told Medical Daily. “I’d let them chill in the hotel rooms with cannabis to heal and help with their pain. There are low THC and high CBD strains that don’t get you high, but instead act as a medicine for head trauma.”

Yet, that is not the reality and, players are forced to follow a drug policy that has a very low tolerance for marijuana use and an alarmingly lackadaisical tolerance for steroid use. The League is allowing its players to amp up their physical strength and endurance, while they pay for it through increased aggression and lifelong medical conditions. Meanwhile, on Sept. 12, the day Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse, the NFL estimated that about one-third of former football players will develop ALS, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or another debilitating and life-changing neurological disorder. The brain damage players experience is virtually indisputable, and it's amplified by problems with addiction and aggression, which have been mournfully oppressive for the NFL industry as a whole. Instead of adjusting its drug policy to benefit players physically, mentally, and emotionally, the League has doctors handing players scripts for pills laced with side effects.

“That is the real crime here, that doctors just give it to them,” Olson said. “It’s just criminal. Look at these lineman that can’t walk and talk. I love football. I grew up a fan and I’m really disappointed. The NFL clearly has some sort of responsibility here and the Players Association.”

Why can’t NFL players take advantage of the CBD-rich strands of cannabis? After all, no one is giving players permission to walk onto the five-yard line stoned — that was never the case, Olson said. CBD, or cannabidiol, is the second leading ingredient in marijuana. It has demonstrated neuroprotective and neurogenic effects as a healing modality, and has been talked about as a treatment for head trauma patients. Football players are far more likely to experience severe brain damage than the general population, which forcibly places a magnifying glass over the NFL’s irresponsible and illogical drug policy.

When players step off the field, they are tended to by athletic trainers and doctors alike, and promptly sent home with jingling pockets filled with prescription opioid pain killers to ease their aching heads and other bodily injuries. It’s no surprise football players in the NFL are abusing pain killers at a rate four times higher than the general population. However, it's not until they retire their jerseys that they become brave enough to speak out against the cyclical process of pain and painkillers throughout their pro football careers. 

“[NFL] players have a legitimate and substantial claim to use medical marijuana," former Broncos receiver Nate Jackson recently told the Denver Post. "[Instead] teams pass out opioid painkillers, which are highly addictive. They are a derivative of the poppy plant — so it is basically pharmaceutical heroin.”

It would seem logical to allow those experiencing pain to receive medical marijuana, which has side effects like slight euphoria, instead of oxycodone and codeine, with side effects like nausea, depression, suicidal thoughts, and rhythmic heart conditions, that so many players swallow at night. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, these drugs reside safely inside the Schedule II, III, and V categories, making them acceptable to ingest by players on and offseason.

Marijuana is deemed a Schedule I drug according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which states: “Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence.” The DEA says drugs in this category currently have no acceptable medical use, and then proceeds to group marijuana with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. Cocaine sits safely inside a schedule II category with ADHD medications such as Adderall and Ritalin.

“It’s considered a schedule I drug, which means we are prohibited to study any benefits and are only allowed to study the negative effects,” the medical director of Ghost Group Dr. Bonni Goldstein, who specializes in treating pediatric seizures with medical cannabis, told Medical Daily. “It’s in the wrong schedule. Marijuana is not nearly as addictive as alcohol or even nicotine and caffeine for that matter. It makes no sense. We can no longer talk about medical marijuana as if it’s the same as street pot. It’s a challenging thing when there’s still a stigma in the medical community.”

Goldstein is one of the leading experts in medicinal marijuana treatments. She's seen unprecedented results among her patients alone, with a 75 percent reduction in seizures. The success can be attributed to the medical efficacy of CBD, which can be grown in higher-than-normal concentrations in marijuana. These strains are also grown to have lower levels of the high-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) so that the drug's euphoric effects barely emerge. 

Goldstein said it's well documented that CBD helps, and that the NFL’s current position is a “non-progressive stance to have this drug policy.” Since marijuana was first researched in the 1960s, THC has casted a long shadow over the medical benefits of CBD, which has been used to treat severe epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, anxiety disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and cancer pain. Increasingly, medical researchers are encouraging doctors to use CBD for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

“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.”

The NFL is considered a non-profit organization, which means the federal government has ultimate control of the policies. Even though both Colorado and Washington have passed laws to legalize the use of in-state marijuana, the Congress-backed NFL ultimately has the last say, even if players want to use CBD strains in order to ease their painful head injuries, bereft of a euphoric high. It will take copious amounts of education, support, and research-backed studies to move legislation in the medically beneficial direction.

“Unfortunately un-brainwashing people is a very difficult thing,” Goldstein said. “We’re moving forward, slowly, but it’s forward. The medical community is pretty behind on this and doctors need to take it upon themselves to educate themselves because it’s not going to go away. “

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