“I broke my tibia, dislocated my shoulder, separated both shoulders, tore my groin off the bone once and my hamstring off the bone twice, broke fingers and ribs, tore my medial collateral ligament, suffered brain trauma,’’ says Nate Jackson, ex Denver Broncos star and one of the most outspoken crop of ex-players who’ve come out against the misuse of opiate pain medication and in favour of medical cannabis.
“They pump guys full of anti-inflammatory pills. My stomach lining is gone; I have constant acid-reflux issues. I’m constantly clearing my throat; my food comes up all the time—not vomiting, but regurgitation. And the Toradol shots I took in the ass before a game to play, they destroy your insides. But they’re passed out regularly”.
But Jackson didn’t only rely on the pain relief handed out in the locker room. “After games” he reveals, “and after really rough practices, I’d medicate with marijuana when I got home because my body was a wreck and my mind was a wreck. It helped me; it got my mind off my body and strengthened my mental resolve for what I’d be doing the next day”.
Eben Britton shared Jackon’s experiences while playing for clubs like the Chicago Bears. “Pain is a constant” in NFL life, he says. He too turned to cannabis when he saw the effects of the prescribed medication.
“Juxtaposing my experiences with pharmaceutical drugs like Vicodin and Percocet, that made me angry and irritable, frustrated, didn’t get rid of any of the pain, made it difficult to sleep, increased my heart rate and made me feel crazy,” he said, and “on the other side of that there’s cannabis that helped me sleep, put me into a healing state of being where I was relieved from stress and anxiety as well as feeling the pain relief.”
But what Jackson and Britton were doing, self-medicating with marijuana, was against the current NFL protocol, where even casual pot use can lead to suspension, including in states where medical cannabis is permitted.
Players face harsh penalties for testing positive while others who have spoken out in favour of using cannabis, have paid an even higher price.
Eugene Monroe, a vocal campaigner for a change in the NFL’s policy on Cannabis use, attributes the Ravens’ recent decision to terminate his contract with three years and $20 million left, to his pro-cannabis and anti-opiate stance. But Monroe’s commitment to the cause continues unabashed. He has just donated $80,000 to the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins to advance the studies of medical marijuana use for NFL players, in particular examining the potential benefits of CBD or Cannabidiol in alleviating the symptoms of concussion.
“The NFL relies heavily on opioids to get players back on the field as soon as possible, but studies have shown medical marijuana to be a much better solution; it is safer, less addictive and can even reduce opioid dependence’ he says. Some studies have also shown that cannabidiol (CBD) — one of the more than 100 cannabinoids found in marijuana — may function as a neuroprotectant, which means it can shield the cells in the brain from injury or degeneration. We need to learn more about this”, he said in a recent interview.
It’s not surprising that NFL players are particularly interested in CBD’s neuroprotective potential. Many players after retirement go on to suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma, such as concussions. A number of ex-players who committed suicide were later found to have CTE.
The condition was the topic of the keynote speech at the recent Cannabis World Conference in New York, chaired by Leonard Marshall – a NFL superbowl champion and diagnosed with CTE. He was joined by Jim MacMahon, former Chicago Bears star and fellow CTE sufferer who is urging the league to remove marijuana from the banned substance list.
But still the league continues with its medical protocol of subscribing opiate based medication despite in 2014, over 600 former players suing the NFL for what they claimed to be the league’s mismanagement of opioid painkillers.
Eugene Moore has seen first hand how the current approach can ruin the lives of players both on and off the pitch. “I’ve watched teammates and some of my best friends battle with opioid addiction” he says.”I got a call recently from an old teammate at the University of Virginia who told me that one of our former UVA teammates — a guy who was a few years ahead of me and who mentored me before going on to play in the NFL — had gotten addicted to pain pills and had essentially vanished. He has left his home for the streets and is now addicted to heroin”.
“This is a cause I am incredibly passionate about,” he continues. “Replacing opioids with cannabinoids could greatly improve and even save the lives of football players. I have donated $80,000…to fund research that will examine the potential benefits of CBD in alleviating symptoms of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). What has the NFL, a billion-dollar organization, done?”
However, it seems the high profile campaigns could be making some inroads into the NFL’s entrenched drugs’ policy. Last month Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of player health and safety, and Russell Lonser, a neurological surgeon and a member of the league’s head, neck and spine committee, sat in on a conference call with Monroe, another vocal ex player Jake Plummer and the lead CBD researchers Dr. Ryan Vandrey and Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller.
“It was progress” according to Monroe, “but progress isn’t enough. We need our league to move swiftly and progressively in removing our cannabis-testing policies. Players shouldn’t be punished for consuming a medicine that’s available to half our country … and can be vital to saving our players’ lives and protecting our health and wellness.” .
The NFL remain non-committal. “We are guided by medical advisors. They have not indicated a need to change the policy. If they did, we would consider exploring changes.”
For now at least at the NFL, it’s business as usual.