Pro Football Players Should Be Allowed to Use Cannabis


Though questions about concussions in professional football are not going away anytime soon, the National Football League won’t acknowledge a safe, non-addictive palliative that many players turn to: marijuana. The punishing effects of the game leave players banged up, and often coping with symptoms of concussion. Many find that they respond better to some post-game pot than prescription or over-the-counter medications.

"It's not, let's go smoke a joint," retired NFL defensive lineman Marvin Washington told the Associated Press. "It's, ‘What if you could take something that helps you heal faster from a concussion, that prevents your equilibrium from being off for two weeks and your eyesight for being off for four weeks?’” That something, for many, is pot.

Washington described one player “who just hated the pain pills they were giving out at the time,” but got the same relief without the side effects from pot. The AP mentioned accounts that some players only use cannabis during the season, indicating that their main motivation is medicinal rather than recreational.

As science on marijuana’s medicinal effects progresses, and stodgy attitudes loosen, a pro-pot stance could help soften a much bigger controversy: it has become clear in recent years that professional football is damaging to the body, sometimes in ways that don’t heal well over time. Many retired players have spoken out on the long-term effects playing football had on their health, particularly related to concussions and cognitive functioning. Some have done more than speak out: the NFL is currently mired in two lawsuits, according to the AP—one about concussions, the other on painkillers.

Cannabis, which can mitigate symptoms of concussions and is not nearly as addictive as most painkillers, could help take the edge off of both of these issues.

Players “are leaning on [marijuana] to cope with the pain," said Marcellus Wiley, a defensive lineman who retired in 2006. Wiley estimates that about half the players in the NFL used marijuana at the time he left the league.

While the NFL has maintained a public stance of not supporting marijuana use or research, some are encouraging the league to thaw on this issue.

Lester Grinspoon, professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, published an open letter to the NFL, urging it to drop testing for marijuana use and to instigate a study on how marijuana derivatives can reduce the effects of concussions.

"As much as I love to watch professional football, I'm beginning to feel like a Roman in the days when they would send Christians to the lions," Grinspoon said. "I don't want to be part of an audience that sees kids ruin their future with this game, and then the league doesn't give them any recourse to try to protect themselves.”

As it becomes more and more clear that professional football can be seriously damaging, and marijuana use cannot, pressure will only grow for the NFL to make some common-sense changes to its drug policy for the longterm health of its players.

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