NFL, Marijuana and Pain

By Ed Coghlan

As Super Bowl 50 approaches, the NFL is preparing its biggest event.

National Pain Report readers might be asking, “What does the NFL have to do with chronic pain?”

Right question to ask.

The answer might be “a lot.”

HBO’s Real Sports aired a story this week by Andrea Kremer that discussed how marijuana is increasingly becoming a primary weapon for players in their fight against pain.

Pro football is a collision sport—and its players spend much of the week after a game just healing up—so they can collide again the next Sunday, or Monday or Thursday.

Pain is a constant.

The NFL will tell you that marijuana is forbidden. NFL Chief Counsel Adolpho Birch made the case again to HBO that players aren’t supposed to use it.

Former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson spent six years in the league and he estimated that at least half the players smoke pot to deal with pain and brain injury (concussion) issues.

“I weeded as needed,” he said. “It offers relief. I don’t know why. I don’t hurt as much when I use it.”

Former Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe told Kremer that more and more younger players in the league are using marijuana to counteract pain after seeing what opiates like Vicodin have done to older players in the league.

“Pain pills weren’t good for me,” said former Bronco Jackson. “They made me feel like s—. They made me sad.”

While there is still no medical research being done on marijuana and pain in the United States (because marijuana is still “illegal” by federal definition), the Israeli doctor who has been studying marijuana for 50 years thinks that should change.

Dr. Raphael Mechoulam of Hebrew University told Kremer that doctors around the world use marijuana to treat chronic pain.

“Opiates are strong and addictive and there’s the potential of addiction,” he said.

Researchers indicate that painkiller abuse in the NFL is common because painkillers are easy to get. The NFL says it has tried to limit access and urges player to see their own doctors for what Birch called “pain management.”

While the NFL continues to articulate a hard line about marijuana, there doesn’t appear to be much interest in pursuing players who smoke. If Jackson is right and more than half of the players are smoking, that might be a reason.

But publicly the NFL, which could be leading on this issue, says to marijuana advocates, “show us when you have something.”

In 2015, A Canadian research team led by Dr. Mark Ware from the Research Institute of Canada’s  McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) in Montréal completed a national multi-center study looking at the safety of medical cannabis use among patients suffering from chronic pain. They found that patients with chronic pain who used cannabis daily for one year, when carefully monitored, did not have an increase in serious adverse events compared to pain patients who did not use cannabis.

“This is the first and largest study of the long term safety of medical cannabis use by patients suffering from chronic pain ever conducted,” says Dr. Ware. “We found that medical cannabis, when used by patients who are experienced users, and as part of a monitored treatment program for chronic pain over one year, appears to have a reasonable safety profile.”

What may move the NFL toward dropping its ban against marijuana is other research—which is being performed in Israel by Dr. Mechoulam.

They are finding in research with mice that marijuana can help the brain heal from injury. There is no medicine that is used successfully to treat concussion effects.

The NFL’s concern about concussions and their long-term damage—which some believe is an existential threat to the sport—might get them moving.

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