It’s not often you’ll see me write this, but here goes:
Kudos, Roger Goodell.
The National Football League is not exactly — and I believe this is the Craigslist term of art — 420-friendly. Marijuana is on the NFL’s list of banned substances; for players, a single positive test can result in a four-game suspension. Last week, however, league commissioner Goodell said the NFL would consider allowing athletes to use marijuana to treat concussions and other head injuries if medical experts deemed it a legitimate solution.
“I’m not a medical expert,” Goodell said. “We will obviously follow signs. We will follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that. Our medical experts are not saying that right now.”
Goodell is right: he’s not a medical expert. And the NFL’s medical experts — ahem – probably aren’t yet recommending that team doctors in states like Colorado and California start handing out prescriptions for “Beast Mode” cannabis. Still, re-read the commissioner’s quote:
… if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that …
Here’s an appropriate context for the proper usage of medical marijuana: professional freaking football. And never mind brain damage. Think aches and pains. Tension and stress. The types of ailments that come with playing a violent, demanding sport within an insecure, unforgiving workplace environment.
The types of ailments doctors and scientists already are using marijuana to treat.
Last year, I wrote that the sports world should (a) embrace medical marijuana and (b) stop policing recreational marijuana use under current anti-drug and anti-doping policies. Why? Simple:
1. There’s no evidence that recreational marijuana use is any more hazardous to one’s health than recreational alcohol consumption (in fact, the former is arguably safer);
2. There’s no evidence that recreational marijuana use is detrimental to one’s athletic performance. To the contrary, some evidence suggests it might even be beneficial. (Also, it’s likely less of a performance de-hancer than alcohol);
3. There’s significant evidence that medical marijuana offers therapeutic relief for the types of physical and mental aliments suffered by athletes, particularly football players.
Start with the latter point. Studies show that marijuana can reduce inflammation and chronic pain. It helps users sleep better, a crucial part of recovery from injury and physical exertion. A 2011 paper in the American Journal of Sports Medicine that specifically considered marijuana use by athletes found that cannabis induces euphoria, improves self-confidence, induces relaxation and steadiness, reduces anxiety and relieves the stress of competition. In addition, the paper’s authors noted that marijuana plays “a major role in the extinction of fear memories by interfering with learned adverse behaviors” and speculated that “athletes who experienced traumatic events in their career could benefit from such an effect.”
Do you think NFL players could possibly benefit from all of the above? Especially when — as Goodell alluded to — research indicates that cannabis-based drugs may help protect the brain following head trauma?
Last year, I asked former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson about his use of marijuana while playing in the league. Jackson wasn’t some sort of football Spicoli, getting high in the stadium tunnel and ordering pizza in the locker room. He was an undersized blocker who made the league via hard work and a willingness to get his butt kicked on the line of scrimmage before finding a way to catch the ball, the better to get clobbered again. As such, his career was built on hurt: throbbing joints and separated shoulders, a strained oblique muscle and a hamstring nearly torn from the bone.
To cope, Jackson smoked. Not only for pain.
“It not just physical pain you deal with,” he told me. “It’s this really intense mental aspect. You’re sitting in meetings 3-4 hours a day. Being told to focus. Being told that this week, this game, this play is f—ing everything. It creates a lot of stress and anxiety. It’s hard to relax. Marijuana allowed my body and mind to relax. The relaxation was really important. Everybody has to have that thing they can do to step away from the game, or they are going to go crazy.
“We hear it every year, college kids coming out [for the NFL Draft] and smoking marijuana and it’s a red flag for teams and all this s—. But I don’t think there’s a discernible difference between the dude who smokes weed and the one who doesn’t. In fact, I think the guy who smokes weed might be a little more calm and not as high-strung.”
Marijuana offers another benefit: medically speaking, it’s safer than many of the painkillers currently prescribed to NFL players; recreationally speaking, it’s arguably less dangerous than alcohol. Opioid drugs such as Vicodin and Percocet are powerful, addictive and potentially deadly. The anti-inflammatory drug Toradol — until recently, a league favorite — can cause kidney damage, ulcers and brain bleeding if given more than several days in a row, and is banned for non-surgical use in some European countries.
In 2011, ESPN and researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published a survey of former NFL players’ painkiller use. The results were disturbing. More than half of the respondents had taken opioids during their pro football careers. Nearly three-quarters of that group had misused the drugs. Seven percent of all players said they had misused prescription painkillers within the last 30 days — an abuse rate more than four times higher than the general population.
By contrast, marijuana is not physically addictive. No one has ever died from an overdose. Withdrawal symptoms are mild to nonexistent. Use vaporization — a process that heats marijuana to a temperature where active chemical vapors form, but below the point of combustion — and the toxin-inhaling respiratory risks associated with smoking vanish. Following a six-year study, the United Kingdom Drug Policy Commission likened the risk of using cannabis to that of gambling … and eating junk food.
When I asked medical marijuana expert and State University of New York at Albany psychology professor Mitch Earleywine about the dangers of marijuana use last year, this is what he told me:
“One of my grad students just gathered data from medical [marijuana] users. Consistent low does usage does not see many negative consequences at all. The concerns we had about tolerance and withdrawal seem to be appearing only in heavy dosage situations. So what are the big negative consequences? Look at the standard measures of drug abuse. Impaired family relationships? Cannabis is not notorious for that. Trying to raise money for drugs via prostitution? No one is on the street giving [sexual favors] for pot. Impaired functioning at work? There’s not a big hangover effect. How about actual physiological problems? We don’t see the liver damage notorious in alcohol use. We’re not seeing the respiratory problems that you see with tobacco use, especially when using vaporizers.
“So what are we left with? Scare tactic things about mental illness. I guess, yeah, if you have a schizophrenic twin brother, you shouldn’t use it. Other than the occasional cookie dough binge, I really don’t see what the big negative consequences would be. It’s certainly safer than Oxycontin and the stronger opiates. Oddly enough, aspirin at higher doses is much harder on the liver than cannabis.”
Speaking of being hard on the liver: Jackson told me that NFL players are better off smoking marijuana than using — and abusing — alcohol. He had a point. Hangovers can affect on-field performance. Excessive drinking can lead to bar brawls and drunk driving. Mixing alcohol and painkillers can be fatal.
“If you’re talking about booze,” Jackson said, “marijuana is by far the lesser of two evils.”
Earlier this week, the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project unveiled five billboards around MetLife Stadium — the site of the Super Bowl — that make a similar argument. According to Politico, one shows a man passed out with a bottle and a football player on the ground and says, “Marijuana: Safer than alcohol … and football”; another depicts a pint glass, a cracked helmet and a marijuana leaf and labels them, respectively, “beer, football, safer.”
“When you watch a NFL game on Sunday, you can almost get drunk just watching,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal polices for the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s every other commercial — Bud Light, Coors Light, hot girls and cheerleaders, everyone having a good time glamorizing alcohol. The NFL is obviously in bed with alcohol. If they think it’s an acceptable drug for adults to use and its players to use, why in the world would they think marijuana is unacceptable, and why in the world would they want to punish their players for it when it’s objectively safer?”
Marijuana is not a perfect drug. Side effects can include increased heart rate, dizziness, greater appetite, paranoia and disorientation. Use also can impair concentration and coordination. It’s not an appropriate pregame or in-game medication, any more than a six-pack of Bud Light is. That said, does it threaten the integrity of football? Is it worth banning simply because it hurts the game?
Hardly. Not if real-world evidence matters.
During a Fox Sports podcast, former Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said that his teammates smoked marijuana ahead of one of his two Super Bowls. Also note: his teammates were playing in the Super Bowl. Santonio Holmes was named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player during the same season that he was charged with marijuana possession. Randy Moss is going to the Hall of Fame. Robert Kelmko of the MMQB.com recently wrote that:
Our unscientific survey of 48 current and former players, front office execs, head and assistant coaches, agents, medical professionals and marketing professionals — all of whom either played in the NFL or work closely with NFL players — suggests that more than half of all players smoke marijuana regularly.
In other words: NFL players, probably a lot of them, already are using pot for both enjoyment and self-medication. And the league hasn’t become Wooderson L-I-V-I-N’ at the 50-yard line. Which in turn raises the question: what, exactly, are Goodell and his experts waiting for?
Pop quiz: who said the following about medical marijuana use in the NFL?
“I would say that we have to explore and find ways to make our game a better game and take care of our players in whatever way possible. Regardless of what other stigmas might be involved, we have to do this because the world of medicine is doing this.”
The answer? Pete Carroll. A football coach. Yes, marijuana is still illegal in many states. And yes, it remains a federal controlled substance. Still, both the law and cultural attitudes are shifting. Widespread decriminalization and legalization are coming. In the meantime, there’s no good reason for the NFL to keep playing amateur Drug Enforcement Agency. The league should take marijuana off its banned substances list. It should stop testing for the drug. It should give up suspending players for its recreational use, and instead allow team medical staffs in states like Washington and Colorado to add marijuana to their pharmacological toolboxes. The problem with Goodell’s statement isn’t that he opened a door. It’s that he didn’t open it wide enough.
“It’s normal and natural to expect Goodell to be conservative and the NFL to be one of the last organizations to change its policies, to wait on more states and the fedeal government to change their policies first,” Riffle said. “But if I were the the NFL, I would want to get out in front of this. It’s such a no-brainer. You have guys taking Percocet and Vicodin for pain relief, and those are more addiction and more dangerous than marijuana. That’s in the medical context. In the recreational context, if I were commissioner Goodell, I’d rather have my players at home on the couch getting high with each other than out at a club getting drunk and driving home.”