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Can Public Opinion Sway NFL's Stance on Marijuana?

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USA TODAY

 

Damned if they do, damned if they don't.

That's the yin and yang of the marijuana issue as it pertains to the NFL drug policy.

Voters in seven states last week approved cannabis -- either for recreational or medicinal use -- and, by extension, advanced the argument that the league's ban on it (officially) is like something out of the Stone Age.

If you're keeping score, that's 28 states plus the District of Columbia that legally allow weed in one form or another.

The NFL Players Association is in the process of forming a committee that will study and presumably make recommendations about the potential use of marijuana and other alternatives for managing pain.

"The movement is happening," former defensive end Marvin Washington told USA TODAY Sports.

From ABNFL to Players: Pot Now Legal for Some, But Don't Smoke It

Washington, 51, who played 11 seasons, mostly with the New York Jets, has been on something of a crusade by calling for the league to rethink its existing position.

"They can't ignore this, when 60% of the country has access to recreational or medical cannabis," added Washington, co-founder of Isodiol Performance, which has produced a line of cannabidiol-infused products that address pain.

Listening to him and pondering the election reminds me of a chat from training camp with Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II. I've wondered how the evolution of societal attitudes about marijuana resonate among owners, particularly given the suspensions of several high-profile players.

"The culture in our country has changed," Rooney said. "It's legalized here and there, decriminalized in a lot of places. They may not take it as seriously. But our rules haven't changed.

"Maybe someday," he added, "but not anytime soon."

Someday. The image-conscious NFL surely wants no part of fueling the perception that its players are riding around like Cheech and Chong.

But we're talking about medical marijuana, with a key distinction that might make it plausible as a pain-management alternative: It doesn't contain THC, the ingredient that gets a person high.

As the drug policy stands now, it's more of a wink-wink situation -- and not just for medical marijuana. If players avoid positive tests that would expose them to unlimited random drug tests, they are tested just once a year -- on an undisclosed date between April 20 and Aug. 9 -- which would conceivably allow them to earn a pass to use marijuana during the season. For some users, that would mean staying clean for a few weeks before April 20, then resuming use after their test.

Yet when high-profile talents such as Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon, Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant and Oakland Raiders linebacker Aldon Smith are suspended for a full year or indefinitely, due to multiple failed tests, reportedly for marijuana use, it strikes me as maybe more of an addiction issue than a pain-management solution.

Still, if marijuana can help ease pain that all players endure while engaging in their violent and physical occupation, why deny them? A survey of 229 players by ESPN The Magazine this year came back with 71% approving of the use of medical marijuana.

Marijuana is widely perceived as less dangerous than alcohol, although risks that include being a gateway to other drugs and the impact on brain function and coordination skills can't be dismissed. But there's also the notion that in an environment where participants might choose something to deal with pain, cannabis is highly preferable to opioids.

"Players want an alternative to traditional Western medicine, which is prescribing pills that can be toxic and addictive," Washington said.

The results from the election did little to move the needle at NFL headquarters, a person with knowledge of the thinking of the league's highest-ranking officials told USA TODAY Sports. The NFL's boilerplate statement expressed the same sentiment it has for months, maybe even years: It will follow the science.

There are doctors to be found on both sides of the debate about the benefits of medical marijuana, but the science the NFL references is limited to that which is advised by the four-member panel that administers the drug policy and is jointly approved by the league and players union. This is not an easy or quick fix, but there is room to advance the ball.

If the NFL wants to be progressive, it can make a strong commitment to funding some of the research being conducted to study the effects of marijuana usage. After all, in pledging to promote the long-term wellness of players, benefits could improve the quality of lives.

Washington believes products that contain cannabidiol but are not smoked -- including balms, oils and vaporous mist that can be inhaled -- might be the eventual solution.

"Cannabis and CBD can do the same thing as anti-inflammatories," he said, "but not be as hard on your liver and kidneys."

That's reason enough to search for viable alternatives.

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November 17, 2016
 
 
 

 

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