Medical marijuana has been legalized in 29 states, but it remains illegal for professional football players to use as a treatment for injuries and chronic pain.
That doesn't mean players in the National Football League aren't using the drug. Quite the opposite. Eben Britton, who retired in 2014 after seven years in the NFL and who has admitted to playing games while high on marijuana and painkillers, estimates that more than half of the players in NFL locker rooms are using marijuana recreationally, or to treat injuries and control pain. During a discussion hosted by Herb.co, a marijuana culture website, Britton talked about his experience using marijuana versus using opioids and other pain-killers.
"I would take these pills and I would feel insane," Britton says. The opioids made him feel "more depressed, more helpless, more pissed off."
Britton's assessment of widespread marijuana use in the NFL is supported by other players' experience. In a survey conducted earlier this year by BudTrader.com, an online medical marijuana marketplace, 68 percent of the current and former players polled said they had used marijuana (either for recreational or medical purposes) during their career, while 87 percent said they would use it if the league allowed it (and 89 percent said they believed it would be an effective treatment for pain and other ailments).
That tracks pretty closely with how the rest of the country feels about medical marijuana. A Quinnipiac University Poll conducted in February found support for medical marijuana at 93 percent nationwide, with large majorities cutting across all demographics. According to Gallup's latest polling, support for legalizing recreational marijuana is at 60 percent, the highest percentage recorded in the polling firm's 47 years of tracking that question. As Steve Chapman wrote earlier today here at Reason, legal marijuana is becoming the norm.
The NFL has never allowed players to use marijuana for any reason—though league officials and the head of the NFL's players' union have begun discussing the possibility of allowing players to use the drug for medical purposes. But there is a well-documented history of teams handing out pharmaceutical pain-killers by the handful.
Several former players are suing the NFL, alleging that official team doctors ignored federal laws for prescription drugs and disregarding medical guidance by handing out piles of opioids and other painkillers before, during, and after games.
"I've seen plenty of guys leave the game addicted to pain pills. I've never seen anyone leave the game addicted to marijuana," says Marvin Washington, who played 11 seasons in the league and participated in the Herb.co discussion.
The NFL's position on marijuana could soon change. Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys' owner and possibly the most powerful billionaire in the NFL's inner circle of powerful billionaires, has floated the idea of loosening the NFL's ban on marijuana. And Allen Sills, the league's new chief medical officer, is interested in researching how marijuana could be used to help players manage their pain.
"Certainly the research about marijuana and really more particularly cannabinoid compounds as they may relate to the treatment of both acute and chronic pain, that is an area of research that we need a lot more information on and we need to further develop," Sills, a Vanderbilt University neurosurgeon, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Despite overwhelming public support, and evidence the NFL's ban is no preventative, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has remained unmoved. Goodell suspended Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson last year for using medical marijuana to treat Crohn's disease, even though Henderson had a prescription for it.
"I think you still have to look at a lot of aspects of marijuana use," Goodell said during an April interview with ESPN. "Is it something that can be negative to the health of our players?"
During the Herb.co discussion with other former players, Washington specifically called out Goodell for those comments.
"My thing is, what about the long term effects of football on their health?," says Washington. "If there's any sport or league that should be leading the way in experiments with cannibis, of course, it's the [NFL]."