NFL players are banned from using the marijuana for any purposes under the existing collective bargaining agreement, even in states where it is legal. Under that agreement, players who test positive for marijuana must enter a substance abuse program. Multiple violations lead to fines, game suspensions, and banishment from the league.
Former NFL players have been increasingly vocal in their criticism of the ban in recent years, saying that medical marijuana is a safe alternative to the powerful prescription opiates routinely prescribed to NFL players for pain. Documents obtained by The Post earlier this year show that NFL teams are heavy users of prescription pain medications, averaging about “six to seven pain pills or injections a week per player over the course of a typical NFL season.”
There’s little evidence that opiates work for the chronic aches and pains often suffered by football players. But there’s strong evidence that anyone, NFL pro or otherwise, who uses opiates on a long-term basis is putting themselves at serious risk for drug dependency, overdose, and death. A 2014 review of 39 studies investigating the efficacy of opiate painkillers for chronic pain found that “evidence on long-term opioid therapy for chronic pain is very limited but suggests an increased risk of serious harms that appear to be dose-dependent.” In other words, there’s little evidence of benefit for treating chronic pain with opioids, but a there is a real risk of harm.
The implications of this finding shouldn’t be understated, for either NFL players or the public. Opiate painkillers, like the ones prescribed in bulk by the NFL, kill over 15,000 people a year via overdose. No death from a marijuana overdose has been reported, according to the DEA. On the other hand, chronic pain is one of the conditions that marijuana has been shown to be effective at treating. Earlier this year the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published an expansive literature review, spanning decades of research, showing “substantial evidence that cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain in adults.”
The NFL, in other words, is pumping its players full of highly addictive and deadly substances that are of dubious use for treating the long-term, chronic pain suffered by so many players, and fining and suspending players who choose instead to self-medicate with a less-addictive and non lethal substance. The disproportionality of the league’s substance abuse policy was put into stark relief in 2015, when the Browns’ Josh Gordon received a year-long suspension for multiple violations of the league’s marijuana ban. When Ravens running back Ray Rice was charged with aggravated assault for beating his then-fiancee, his initial suspension from the league was only two games.