Marvin Washington spent 11 years as a defensive end in the National Football League (NFL) with the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos; it was with the Broncos that he won the Super Bowl in 1998. During the course of his football career, Marvin sustained injuries that would affect him for the rest of his life. Like many players, he was given opioids to deal with his pain and to keep him out on the field. As players age, they face a number of challenges—among them, the realization that the painkillers they rely on can ultimately lead to a dead end.
As a way out of this opioid dead end, many ex-NFL players, including Marvin, have turned to cannabis. The plant’s anti-inflammatory, pain-fighting properties have helped these players manage their injuries with minimal side effects.
These players have also come to another realization—one that wasn’t out in the open until a few years ago: that athletes involved in contact sports are vulnerable to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. This brain disease—which is caused by frequent head injuries—can lead to mood and behavioral disorders, and ultimately dementia, depression and suicidal thoughts. Studies are showing that cannabis’s neuroprotective properties may help those with this disease.
Armed with this knowledge, Marvin and other players are now calling on the NFL to change its policies towards cannabis use. The policies they’re pressing for would impact how the league approaches pain, brain health and overall player wellness.
Dr. Perry Solomon, HelloMD’s chief medical officer, sat down with Marvin to talk about his cannabis use and advocacy, and the future of football.
Q: How has cannabis helped you address injuries you sustained in the NFL?
I played 11 years in the NFL, and I had seven surgeries, some major some minor. These injuries were things that happened in the off season. I didn’t miss any time. But as you retire, and you get up there in years—it’s been about 18 years since I’ve played in the NFL—I can feel those injuries; it’s not just bumps and bruises. … Playing football was fun, but after you finish playing the game, there’s a price you have to pay.
I was introduced to cannabis, this industry, this movement about four-and-a-half years ago on the CBD (cannabidiol) side. It helps me achieve homeostasis at the age that I am—I just turned 52. I work out every day that I can. I attribute CBD to making me active, to letting me have an active lifestyle.
Q: What CBD products do you prefer to use?
Everything that I use is from Isodiol. I have a joint venture that I did with Isodiol last year. Instead of getting our CBD from hemp or the cannabis plant, we’re getting it from hops. The bioavailability of hops-derived CBD is 85%, and this is something that has been a game changer for me. I can tell the difference. … I’ve been having it for the past six to eight months, and they’re phenomenal.
We have water, salves, pills. The pills are called ImmunAG—it’s time-released and deposits in the lower intestines. It’s like my supplement. Before I work out, I put on our cream. I still lift, and I still do ballistic training where I’m jumping and stretching, so it definitely helps. I take the oil after working out in the morning.
Q: Can you talk about the NFL’s opioid problem and how cannabis can help address these issues?
NFL players are four times more likely to abuse opiates than the rest of society—that tells you what’s happening with my peers and people that I played with. We’re being introduced to these opiates and benzodiazepines at a younger age. Take a guy like me: I started this pharmaceutical regimen of pills—anti-inflammatories and pain pills—from July all the way until January, and I played for 11 years. I’m supposed to go cold turkey? It doesn’t work that way for a lot of guys.
Most of the guys are old, out of shape, not active, and they’re sore—these football injuries have immobilized them. I say microdose with [cannabis], take it every day and see how you feel—it usually makes a difference. … Most of the people I know who are using cannabis are guys that have been addicted to the opiates and pharmaceuticals. There’s a plethora of them: Ricky Williams, Kyle Turley, Eben Britton, Jim McMahon—cannabis helps them. … But when a guy has an opiate addiction issue, I can’t just say, "Here take this oil or this vape."
I had an ex-teammate call me years ago—he was living with his mother, taking 12 Percocets a day, hadn’t played football in 15 years. He was looking in the laundry room thinking about drinking bleach—that’s how low he was. Me just giving him CBD wasn’t going to do the deal. I have cannabis doctors and nurses that I consult with, so we went at it as a team. We were able to wean him off of the opiates, but he had to go to a facility in Texas that uses CBD.
Q: You only use CBD products—how do you feel about the use of cannabis products with THC by NFL players?
I’m all about full-plant cannabis—THC, THCA, CBD, CBN. Some guys, the thing that has helped them has been THC. Particularly as an anti-inflammatory, particularly for anti-anxiety and particularly for pain management. The NFL medical program has something called TUD—therapeutic use exemption—where they let guys that have ADHD take Ritalin and Adderall, which are banned substances according to WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). The NFL lets these guys take it under doctor’s orders.
My thing is in the states and municipalities where it’s legal, do the same thing with cannabis. Instead of sending guys home after a hard practice with pain pills and anti-inflammatories, send them home with something that could be THC, CBD or a combination of both.
We’re not talking about sending guys home with a blunt. There’s all types of delivery systems: There’s swabs, vapes, transdermal patches. There are plenty of ways these guys can medicate with cannabis, come back the next day and have no negative side effects.
Q: Does cannabis have medical applications in youth football?
When you’re talking about contact sports—especially football—I think it’s a no-brainer. [Federal] patent 6630507 says that CBD is an antioxidant and neuroprotectant for the brain, in relationship to concussions. Why not CBD? It’s non-psychoactive, not toxic, not addictive. Cannabis is being used with kids anyway, for epileptic strokes and seizures.
Concussions happen in youth football; concussions happen in high-school football. Raphael Mechoulam has said you can mitigate the symptoms of a concussion if within 30 minutes to an hour [you administer] a massive dose of CBD—this is what I’d like to see.
This is something that should be on every sideline of every football league from youth, to middle school, to high school, to college and definitely pro football. This is something that I think should be on the sidelines of any contact sport where there’s a possibility of head trauma.
I understand there will be trepidation from some parents about giving their kids THC. I would say use CBD, use very low doses of THC, but the thing with kids is that we’re not giving them medical doses. I would say microdose with them. Give them oils or CBD gum—something they can take every day.
Q: Your cannabis advocacy goes beyond the NFL—let’s talk about your lawsuit with Jeff Sessions. What do you hope to accomplish with that?
What we hope to accomplish is for the highest court in the land to decide that cannabis as a Schedule I drug is unconstitutional. The government tried to get the case dismissed. We didn’t get it dismissed—we got an expedited trial date for February 2018. I feel like we’ve won the first battle.
For me, being an African American, being an athlete and being in this space, when you look at the etymology of why Richard Nixon put it on Schedule I, he wanted to go after two groups: hippies, who were protesting the Vietnam war, and African Americans.
[Nixon] had the Shafer Commission that told him everything we’re saying about cannabis now. He didn’t go through a body of Congress or anything like that. He just put it on as Schedule I, so we’re saying that it’s unconstitutional and that it’s racist—the etymology of [cannabis] being a Schedule 1 drug.
I can’t go to states that have a prohibition on THC, and I can’t get an SBA (Small Business Administration) loan to start a business. Minorities already have an issue with lack of access to capital, but a lot of times the government steps in, and we can get these minority loans from the SBA, but we can’t do that with cannabis being a Schedule I drug.
Q: Can you talk about social justice, diversity and inclusion in the cannabis industry—what does that look like?
Even though minorities and Caucasians use marijuana at the same rate, [minorities are] getting arrested five to 12 times more than the majority.
I want to see—like they’re doing in Oakland and Los Angeles—the communities affected most by cannabis’s Schedule I status—with the arrests, incarcerations, breaking up of families, the devastating penalties of having a non-violent felony and being sent away for years—I want see those communities participate now that it’s gone from the black market to the green market. I don’t want us to continue to go to jail while everybody else is going to the bank. That’s why I believe there has to be a social equity program for the communities most affected.
I think it all ties together. We don’t want to do business as usual and end up looking like Silicon Valley. We want to do a better business—and when I say a better business, I say a better business for minorities, a better business for women, a better business for people of a lower socioeconomic status.
California is expunging records. That’s going to affect a million people, not just for the cannabis industry—that’s not withstanding. It’s going to put [people] back into society so they can vote, get federal housing, [have access to] loans, because they don’t have this felony on their record anymore.
Q: What are your opinions on the descheduling versus rescheduling of marijuana?
I think medical marijuana is a no-brainer. When it comes to adult use, that’s something you take to the people. We as a society have said that [certain] things with a social ill are acceptable—we regulate and tax them through the government. Alcohol, tobacco and gambling all have connotations attached to them, but we’ve accepted them as a people. Why can’t we do this with cannabis?
Q: Can you talk about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the impact it might have on the future of the NFL and how cannabis can help?
Since the concussion lawsuit was filed in 2010, youth participation is down across the board. I believe people are aware of the head trauma that’s associated with this game. Everybody is aware of orthopedic injuries that football players are going to have—my generation knew about them. I was willing to accept that, but I didn’t know that there was a possibility that I could leave this game with a disease.
They just came out with a study that says it’s not even about concussions, but the repetitive hitting, bashing of the head—especially if you’re playing along the offensive-defensive line. Patient one of CTE was Mike Webster: He played 17 years as a center; a center leads with this head. He was getting his head hit 95% of the time he was on the football field. It’s the repetitive hits, and then you have the concussions as well. That’s going to build up a lot of tau protein.
Now football moms and dads are aware of what can happen to their kids if they’re playing this game. I wouldn’t let my kid play football unless a football coach could come into my living room, sit down with me and say, "I can guarantee you that little Marvin can play this game and he’s not gonna get a brain disease."
Until you’re able to do that with me, I can’t let him play—and I think a lot of parents are there. No helmet or equipment stops a concussion. I think the thing that stops a concussion is going to come through science, and I believe that cannabis can go a long way in solving that issue for the NFL.
Q: Given the state of the NFL and football in general, would you currently let any of your children (or future children) play the game?
I’d let them play Pop Warner; I’d let them play junior high—but not with helmets. Take the helmets off these kids until they’re at least in high school. Your brain doesn’t stop developing until you’re 21, so what the hell are you doing out there with these kid in helmets at age 7?
Nick Buoniconti, an iconic NFL player, just came out with an initiative yesterday: He recommended that kids not have on helmets until the age of 14. You don’t need to have helmets on these players to learn how to throw, to learn how to catch, to learn how to block, to learn how to tackle. In the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, nobody had on these helmets, but there was still a game of football. They were tackling the proper way.
My company is going to fund a league out of California. We have to find leather helmets that are durable, cost-efficient, etc. We’re going to show kids how to play football. You can learn how to tackle and block the right way, instead of leading with your helmet.
I’m not trying to kill football. I love the game of football. There are plenty of life lessons in football that are not in other sports—I’m only trying to make it safer.
Q: What can people do to combat cannabis’s stigma?
If THC is working for you, show you’re using it responsibly. Don’t show that you’re using it and feeding into a Cheech and Chong, Reefer Madness-type of stereotype. That’s my biggest pet peeve with this industry. Everybody says, "We’re going to be different," but you go to conventions, and guys are walking around with full leaf marijuana suits and a hat—that’s what the news people show. Let’s show that this is responsible; let’s show that this is a medicine.
We are just stewards and stakeholders, the dynamic athlete that’s going to make this acceptable is probably in junior high school. In 2050, [cannabis] is going to be accepted everywhere, but we have to do it right—we can’t have any setbacks.