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Marijuana should come off the NFL’s banned substance list

Why the league should allow its players to use marijuana.

US-ECONOMY-SOCIAL-AGRICULTURE-CANNABIS Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

I spent most of my Fourth of July watching fireworks and arguing with people on Twitter about what are acceptable ways to eat hot dogs. But I couldn’t get something out of my mind the whole time. Even as I flirted with death or bodily harm as I set off firecrackers, the only thing I could think about was weed. Not smoking it or eating it per se, but just how it’s treated in the sporting world.

Marijuana is at the forefront of sports discourse after olympic athlete Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for the drug and will now likely not be able to participate in the games. Here’s a very talented young athlete that was likely going to contend for an Olympic gold medal, but had everything taken away from her because she had some marijuana, a drug that millions of Americans use everyday and one that is legal to use in her home state of Oregon as well as in 23 other states in America and the District of Columbia. It’s a travesty.

All this made me think of the sport that I cover and how the NFL has the very same drug that is fully legal in 24 states and has a mixed legality in 26 others on their banned substances list. I wanted to delve a little further into this and show why the NFL should have marijuana taken off their list.

Pain management

In 2020 the NFL’s in-game injury rate rose to a record high. 801 in-game injuries were recorded in 2020, the most of any season in NFL history. With injuries comes pain management. The NFL’s current answer is to prescribe pain killers. Former Lions great Calvin Johnson told the media in 2016 that the NFL was “giving out painkillers like candy.” This is a big issue, especially for athletes that play in such a physical game that has a lot of injuries.

Opioids are very addictive and can often lead to long-term issues and even death. In 2019 a study by Health And Human Services found that an estimated 10.1 million Americans 12 and older misused opioids. 9.7 million misused opioids that were prescribed to them by doctors. That same year America saw a 70,630 opioid related deaths.

That’s America. The NFL’s current and former players have adopted their own variance of the issue, perhaps at a bigger clip. A study done by the Washington University School Of Medicine found that retired NFL players were using opioids at four times the rate of the general population. They brought in 644 former players and found that 52 percent of them had used painkillers during their time in the NFL and 71 percent of them met the criteria for misuse.

Then there’s marijuana, a natural drug that is often prescribed for cancer patients, people with multiple sclerosis, nerve pain issues and more. You are capable of being addicted to marijuana, but it’s not nearly at the level that painkillers is. In 2015, four million Americans met the diagnostic criteria for marijuana addiction and 130,000 of them sought treatment for it.

What’s for sure is that if marijuana is addictive, which is something that seems to be quite argued over, the numbers don’t at all match those those related to pain killers.

Mental disorders

A couple years ago, we talked to some current NFL players about mental health issues when we did our mental health series. What we found was that there are players in and out of the league that deal with the same everyday mental health issues that many normal Americans deal with.

The NFL doesn't have any mental health medications on their banned substances list, which is good. I fully support anyone taking the medications. I, myself, take medications for my mental health issues. But I can tell you from experience that while the medication helps, it doesn’t rid you of your disorder. There are still days when I have bad anxiety attacks and my OCD triggers are still very much intact despite the medication.

While I don’t currently use marijuana, it has helped me a lot in the past. There have been multiple occasions when I’ve had massive anxiety attacks, which can be painful, and in the face of taking an Ativan and becoming a zombie and going comatose for 10 hours, I chose to use marijuana instead. It settles me right down. I know I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to many who have the same issues.

NFL players should have that same luxury. Perhaps it could help player cope with some of the issues they face while playing the game and some of the harsh realities they face after their careers are over.

They’re already doing it

I can’t tell you how pervasive it is, but I can tell you is that two former Detroit Lions have come out recently and said they were using marijuana during their NFL careers, mostly for pain management. Calvin Johnson said that he used marijuana after every game at the end of his career to help with inflammation and help get his body ready to play the next week. Johnson’s business partner and former Lions offensive lineman Rob Sims also said he used marijuana for the same reasons.

There are players using it and getting away with it, and it is legal just about everywhere if it’s medicinal. So why not remove it from the banned substances and maybe save some lives in the process? It’s not just the NFL, all sports should be doing this. If everyone is able to take opioids and destroy their insides or drink alcohol and do the same, they should be well within their rights to use a natural substance that helps with the same issues with far fewer risks.

The good news is that there may finally be some movement on this. In June the NFL and NFLPA announced that it would provide funding for research into pain treatment. This includes research on medical marijuana. The NFL has also lightened up on punishment for those that test positive for THC. Players can now no longer be suspended if they are under the 150 nanograms criteria. However, they are still subject to fines, so there’s still more work to do.