The NFL has recently reached out to the league’s player’s union to ask to conduct a joint study on the efficacy of cannabis on pain management. NFL Executive Vice President of Communications Joe Lockhart said that the NFL "Can confirm we did reach out to the NFLPA in early July proposing we work together on some research on the impact of marijuana and pain management. While they've acknowledged our letter, we don't yet have a commitment from them to work together on this.”
The players union has already undertaken a study on pain and cannabis in order to help players deal with the pain management issues that many of them face throughout their careers in the NFL. Though the player’s association has not yet given a response to the NFL on whether or not they would like to merge their studies, they are passionate about looking at cannabis as a possible treatment option for their players.
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In recent years there have been many debates taking place in the NFL related to medical cannabis use. With many players now living in states where medical cannabis is legal, more are desiring to be able to use it as a medication to control pain stemming from NFL injuries. Currently, no matter what state a player is located in, they face penalties and suspensions for using cannabis. Players are commonly drug tested to see if they are using illicit substances, as well as cannabis.
In 2014, the league and player’s union came to a new agreement about the levels of THC considered allowed in the drug tests conducted on players. The amount of THC in a blood or urine sample considered positive for the drug was raised from 15 nanogram per ml of blood or urine up to 35 nanogram of THC per ml. In the fall of 2016, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made comments about negotiations and conversations related to cannabis use by NFL players, "We've had several conversations about this issue and several years ago we did take a less punitive approach to marijuana…That will be one of the subjects in the collective bargaining process, which we'd like to get into sooner rather than later.”
Even more recently, however, Goodell stated that a change to their cannabis policy, "Right now, it's not something that we're actively considering. Our doctors are always evaluating that. If they see they can improve our policies or what we can do better to protect our players or help our players, we'll look at it.” These considerations of changes, however fluctuating, to the NFL policy on marijuana have been prompted by the need for more effective forms of pain management for professional football players.
Previous negotiations of changes to NFL policy, however, have failed, often collapse in the final moments of negotiations. Many former, and a few current, players have come forward to the NFL to make it clear that cannabis could be an effective alternative to opioids that many players turn to. The NFL experiences opioid abuse at very high levels, which partially stems from the commonality of injuries and the importance placed on continuing to play despite pain. A 2011 study by the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that over a half of retired NFL players took opioid pain killers during their careers and 71% of those who use opioids abused the opioids they take. A specific letter was written to the NFL by eight former and one current player outlining many of the reasons that the NFL should change their stance on the use of medical cannabis.
In the letter, the players state that, "cannabis deserves the serious attention of your medical staff as a viable pain management alternative and potential neuroprotectant.” Former Baltimore Ravens player, Eugene Monroe, who recently retied from the NFL, said, "It's the responsibility of the medical professionals of the NFL to take this issue on and do something to potentially help players safety and help with their long term safety.” Few current players speak out about their opinions on a desire for cannabis policy to change, but Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan has been willing to speak out despite the potential for backlash. Morgan has said that when it comes to pain management,"We should have all options available to us," and thinks that cannabis is an important alternative to harsher medications like opioids.
It is a great step forward that the NFL is looking into a study about cannabis for pain management, even if they are not immediately considering a policy change, and their desire to partner with the players union shows an interest in the feelings and opinions of the players on the issue. Hopefully this new study will lead to a future where NFL players are able to use cannabis as an effective alternative to opioids to help control their pain.