In the aftermath of a new set of states legalizing marijuana use in the national elections, the NFL Players Association said Wednesday it is actively studying the possibility of allowing players to use marijuana as a pain-management tool.
“Marijuana is still governed by our collective bargaining agreement,” George Atallah, the NFLPA’s assistant executive director of external affairs, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “And while some states have moved in a more progressive direction, that fact still remains.
“We are actively looking at the issue of pain management of our players. And studying marijuana as a substance under that context is the direction we are focused on.”
A growing push from players within the sport, plus an ongoing national medical conversation over the benefits of marijuana and the dangers of opiate-based painkillers, have increased scrutiny on the league’s rules that ban the drug. This also comes as voters in California, Nevada and Massachusetts approved recreational marijuana use Tuesday, joining four other states and Washington, D.C., in enacting similar laws. Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota voters legalized medical marijuana use, bringing the total of states with such measures to more than two dozen.
But marijuana use remains prohibited under the drug policy collectively bargained between the NFL and the NFLPA, and both parties would need to agree to any changes to that policy. Players are tested for marijuana and can be fined or suspended without pay for positive or missed tests.
The union’s contemplation of approving marijuana as a pain-management mechanism for players had begun before Tuesday’s voting.
Some players, including former Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Eugene Monroe, argue that marijuana is safer than the painkillers commonly used by players and its use should be permitted by the sport for pain-management purposes.
“To this point, I understand why no one but me as an active player has said anything about it,” Monroe said in an interview with the Post earlier this year prior to his retirement. “It’s a banned substance in our league. Speaking about it can honestly ruin someone’s career if the wrong team gets wind of it and has adverse opinions on it. But my health is more important than the opinion of someone who could be my employer now or my future employer. . . .
“There’s enough anecdotal evidence already to say, ‘Hey listen, we know it’s not toxic. We know it’s safer than what we’re already doing.’ ”
Monroe, who announced his retirement in July, was not available for further comment Wednesday, according to one of his representatives.
Some contend that the increasing number of states to legalize marijuana use should impact the NFL’s view.
“There is no health and safety reason for marijuana being on the banned list and now the legal rationale has crumbled,” a person on the players’ side of the sport said Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Some medical experts are also advocating for cannabis-based treatment over some current painkillers, noting the addiction and overdose potential of opioids. In 2014, 19,000 deaths were attributed to overdoses from prescription pain medication, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Prescription painkillers have also been cited as a gateway to heroin use.
“In my mind, there’s no comparison if we just started from scratch in the year 2016 and looked newly at which class of drugs worked better to treat pain and side-effect profile up to and including death, in the case of opioids,” Daniel Clauw, a University of Michigan professor who has performed studies comparing opioids and cannabis, told the Post in June. “You put the two next to each other, and there really is no debate which is more effective to treat pain. You would go the cannabinoid route instead of the opiate route.”
Cannabidiol, or CBD, an anti-inflammatory extracted from cannabis, could potentially help players as a preventative measure against one of the most pressing issues facing the NFL: concussions.
Lester Grinspoon, a professor emeritus at Harvard and one of the first medical marijuana researchers, said in an interview with the Post earlier this year that “evidence shows CBD is neuroprotective. I would have each individual take a capsule an hour or two before they play or practice. It’s better than nothing.”
Grinspoon also noted there would be no guarantee such a measure would work.
Following Tuesday’s election results, the league has given no indication that, in its view, any change to the current drug policy is at hand.
“This isn’t just the NFL’s policy,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a written statement Wednesday to the Post. “This is a collectively bargained policy with the NFL Players Association.
“The program is administered by jointly appointed independent medical advisors to the league and the NFLPA who are constantly reviewing and relying on the most current research and scientific data. We continue to follow the advice of leading experts on treatment, pain management and other symptoms associated with concussions and other injuries. However, medical experts have not recommended making a change or revisiting our collectively-bargained policy and approach related to marijuana, and our position on its use remains consistent with federal law and workplace policies across the country. If these medical experts change their view, then this is an area that we would explore.”
The current collective bargaining agreement between the league and union runs through 2020. But the two sides review the sport’s drug policies annually and sometimes make adjustments. In September 2014, the league and union agreed to raise the threshold for what constitutes a positive test for marijuana from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 35 nanograms per milliliter. A nanogram is one-billionth of a gram.
Under the league’s current rules failed or missed tests typically result in a suspension of four games without pay for a fourth violation. The first violation results in the player being referred to a substance abuse program. The second violation results in a fine equivalent to two of the player’s game checks, and the third violation typically results in a four-game fine. A fifth violation is a 10-game suspension and a sixth violation is a one-year ban.
The league has come under fire recently for the length of suspensions given for marijuana use compared to other violations, such as the initial suspensions for domestic violence incidents assessed to then-New York Giants kicker Josh Brown (one game) earlier this season and then-Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice (two games) in 2014.
Rice’s suspension was subsequently increased in the wake of a public outcry, although the longer suspension later was overturned by an arbitrator. Brown has been put on the commissioner’s exempt list, a form of paid leave, as the league mulls a possible larger penalty. He was released by the Giants. Rice has remained unsigned since being released by the Ravens in 2014.
Despite the legalization of marijuana in some states, the federal prohibition on marijuana use remains in place. The Obama administration maintained a policy of noninterference with state marijuana laws. It is not clear what approach will be taken by the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
Gabriel Feldman, the director of the sports law program at Tulane University, said the NFL and NFLPA face a practical and perhaps political decision about marijuana, but not one of compliance with shifting state laws.
“There are substances on the banned substances list that are not illegal,” Feldman said in a phone interview. “The league and the Players Association can make the determination under the CBA that substances that are legal can be on the banned substances list. . . . [Conversely the league] doesn’t have to test for it just because it’s illegal.
“The league is certainly not bound by the laws of individual states in terms of whether they test or don’t test. There are some who might say that alcohol should be a banned substance even though it’s legal. Ultimately it’s up to the league and the players to decide.”
The momentum of the marijuana-legalization movement potentially could influence the NFL’s thinking, Feldman said.
“It may,” Feldman said. “I would think that both the league and the players are continuing to study the issue and continuing to study whether it makes sense. Certainly as the laws change, that might inform their decision and we may see action. [But] the league also has a uniformity issue. Even if the federal prohibition is lifted and it’s legal in some states and illegal in other states, the NFL might have an interest in maintaining uniformity in its policy.”
Previous reporting by The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore and Liz Clarke was used in this story.