League officials describe the NFL’s goal of investigating alternative treatment to be “well beyond marijuana,” as current league policy against cannabis use includes fines and possible game suspension.

This month, the National Football League (“NFL”) announced that it, along with the National Football League Players Association (“NFLPA”), will be investigating the medicinal potential of cannabis and cannabinoids – such as cannabidiol (“CBD”) – as alternative pain management treatments. In the official announcement, the two organizations stated their intention to conduct research on the effectiveness of medical cannabis through their newly-established Joint Pain Management Committee, along with expanding league behavioral health resources.

“There are a lot of alternative pain medications and treatments and those are the types of things that we want this committee to focus on, with medical experts and with medical science behind that,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stated at a recent NFL owners’ meeting.1 Addressing the scope of the league’s research and the role of cannabis, Goodell stated, ”[t]hat’s something that will be part of their studies, but it is much broader than that.”2

The Joint Pain Management Committee will consist of medical professionals appointed by NFL and NFLPA members to develop and implement uniform procedures regarding prescription medication in addition to researching the possible role of cannabis and cannabinoids in pain management. Another aspect of the NFL and NFLPA partnership in this area is the creation of the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which hopes to supervise and record the flow of prescription medication to players.3 The Committee’s formation will also seek to improve and expand player access to NFL mental health resources. Intending to promote education and overall behavioral health, the Committee’s emphasis on players’ mental health follows the Carolina Panthers’ hiring of the NFL’s first in-house psychological clinician last November.4

All thirty-two NFL teams are required to adopt the Committee’s policies before the start of the 2019 season, and each team will be expected to hire a Behavioral Health Team Clinician. Clinicians must offer a minimum 8-12 hours of onsite availability each week, providing mandatory educational sessions for players and coaches, as well as constructing a “Mental Health Emergency Action Plan” for the season.5

The NFL’s decision to modify preexisting cannabis policy comes as no surprise, as league officials have previously discussed the likelihood of a creating medical cannabis program.6 That said, the timing of the league’s initiative does follow increasing criticism of the league’s treatment of players, as former players have attempted legal action for perceived negligence in the league’s distribution of opioids.7 Last year, researchers in Florida found that of the studied retired players with prior exposure to prescribed pain medication during their NFL careers, 26.2% reported recent opioid usage and of that number, nearly half reported abusing opioid medication.8 In May 2014, over 1,000 former players accused the NFL of improper or excessive pain medication prescriptions. However, in April of 2019, U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that the players could not demonstrate the NFL’s “proactive involvement with medication distribution.”9 The Joint Pain Management Committee’s formation appears to offer a level of transparency between the NFL and NFLPA following the latter’s 2017 grievance,10 as both look to improve current and former player care.

While public perception may be improving as more states propose varying degrees of cannabis legalization, the NFL has continued to ban cannabis. According to their 2018 Policy and Program and Program on Substances of Abuse on Substances of Abuse, testing positive for cannabis could result in fines determined by player contract provisions, in addition to multiple game suspensions without pay.

Several players have vocalized their frustration regarding the NFL’s previous treatment methods, claiming the league facilitated mass opioid addiction and neglected the overall wellbeing of players upon their league departure. In a 2015 interview with Vice, former linebacker Keith McCants described his dependency on prescribed painkillers to manage his pain and the lack of support for players exiting the NFL with debilitating injuries despite the sports’ physical intensity. “As long as I was a part of the National Football League playing into the organization, they provided me [with] everything that I needed. The moment they discarded me, got rid of me – 6 months afterwards, I had to fend for myself.”11 Unable to afford healthcare or medical bills beyond the NFL, McCants states that he became addicted to various illegal “street drugs” that were cheaper and easier to access. “Getting arrested over 15, 16 times for cocaine, wasn’t doing drugs for a pleasure thing,” he later recalls, “I was just simply out there trying to suppress my pain.”12

Heroin and prescription opioid medication abuse have skyrocketed across the country over the past decade. But recent clinical studies have suggested that medical cannabis products may be a viable option to treat various ailments, and specifically as alternatives to opioid medications. Earlier this month, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found that cannabidiol (“CBD”) helped curb cue-induced anxiety and cravings for people with a previous record of heroin abuse.13 Studies from the University of Texas also analyzed cannabis and opioid addiction, finding that patients aged 18-55 were written fewer and shorter opioid prescriptions in states with legal medical cannabis programs.14

Much research remains to be conducted. Yet, with the potential to combat opioid abuse, former NFL players have spoken up about managing their pain with cannabis. “This pain is never going away,” explains Eugene Monroe, a former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens. “My body is damaged. I have to manage it somehow. 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.”15

With luck, the NFL’s stance on cannabis could change following the Joint Pain Management Committee’s findings. But only time will tell as the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and NFLPA does not expire until 2021.16

 


  1. Maske, Mark. “Roger Goodell Declines to Say Whether the NFL Will Discipline Robert Kraft.” The Washington Post. May 22, 2019. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/05/22/roger-goodell-declines-say-whether-nfl-will-discipline-robert-kraft/?utm_term=.420e558874eb
  2. Maske, Mark. “Roger Goodell Declines to Say Whether the NFL Will Discipline Robert Kraft.”
  3. Branfalt, TG. “NFL to Research Cannabis for Pain Management.” Ganjapreneur. May 21, 2019. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.ganjapreneur.com/nfl-to-research-cannabis-for-pain-management/
  4. Hagemann, Andie. “NFL, NFLPA Joint Agreements Address Player Health.” NFL.com. May 20, 2019. Accessed May 22, 2019. http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000001031351/article/nfl-nflpa-joint-agreements
  5. Hagemann, Andie. “NFL, NFLPA Joint Agreements Address Player Health.”
  6. Branfalt, TG. “NFL to Research Cannabis for Pain Management.”
  7. Belson, Ken. “For N.F.L. Retirees, Opioids Bring More Pain.” The New York Times. February 02, 2019. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/02/sports/nfl-opioids-.html
  8. Dunne, Eugene M., Catherine W. Striley, Zachary L. Mannes, Breton M. Asken, Nicole Ennis, and Linda B. Cottler. “Reasons for Prescription Opioid Use While Playing in the National Football League as Risk Factors for Current Use and Misuse Among Former Players.” Reasons for Prescription Opioid Use While Playing in the National Football League as Risk Factors for Current Use and Misuse Among Former Players. June 28, 2018. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29933284
  9. Todd, Ross. “NFL Once Again Beats Back Former Players’ Suit Claiming Painkiller Overuse.” The Recorder. April 19, 2019. Accessed May 22, 2019. https://www.law.com/therecorder/2019/04/19/nfl-once-again-beats-back-former-players-suit-claiming-painkiller-overuse/
  10. Maske, Mark. “NFL and Players’ Union to Study Potential Use of Marijuana for Pain Management.” The Washington Post. May 20, 2019. Accessed May 22, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/05/20/nfl-players-union-study-potential-use-marijuana-pain-management/?utm_term=.e8894b840113
  11. “Painkillers in the NFL: Keith McCants on the War Within.” Interview by VICE Sports. YouTube. February 12, 2015. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HsXEpfNZuc
  12. “Painkillers in the NFL: Keith McCants on the War Within.”
  13. Mount Sinai. Icahn School of Medicine. “CBD Reduces Craving and Anxiety in People With Heroin Use Disorder.” News release, May 21, 2019. CBD Reduces Craving and Anxiety in People With Heroin Use Disorder. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.mountsinai.org/about/newsroom/2019/cbd-reduces-craving-and-anxiety-in-people-with-heroin-use-disorder
  14. Drury, Adam. “Study Links Medical Cannabis Legalization to Lower Opioid Prescription Rates.” High Times. May 29, 2019. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://hightimes.com/news/study-links-medical-cannabis-legalization-lower-opioid-prescription-rates/
  15. Maske, Mark. “NFL and Players’ Union to Study Potential Use of Marijuana for Pain Management.”
  16. Phillips, Gary. “NFL Will Consider Changes to Marijuana Ban — For A Price.” Forbes. December 22, 2018. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/garyphillips/2018/12/22/nfl-will-consider-changes-to-marijuana-ban-for-a-price/#341120c32495

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