Weidner’s Words: Weeding out the opiates

A few weeks ago, on April 20, people across the country participated in what has become known as the “weed holiday.” On the same day, Bleacher Report released several videos featuring former NBA and NFL players discussing their use of marijuana and use throughout those leagues, as they were aware of it. Athletes like Kenyon Martin, Matt Barnes and Shaun Smith discussed how smoking marijuana benefitted them by serving as a safe alternative to other more addictive and damaging painkillers.

Despite large amounts of evidence that cannabis serves as a safer alternative to typical opiates like Vicodin, it remains a banned substance in three of the major sports leagues. At the same time, painkillers are handed out with reckless abandon. In 2016, former Detroit Lions star wideout Calvin Johnson said that painkillers were handed out “like candy” in the NFL. Last spring, a federal lawsuit was filed by lawyers representing more than 1,800 former NFL players against the league’s 32 teams alleging that their actions regarding players’ use of painkillers led to long-term organ and joint damage for those players. The lawsuit stated that, “Players are not informed of the long-term health effects of taking controlled substances and prescription medications in the amounts given to them.”

Players are being fed drugs that not only present dangers to them during their career, but can also lead to addictive habits for the rest of their lives. In a 2011 study, of 644 retired NFL players conducted at Washington University in St. Louis, researchers found that those players now use opioid painkillers at a rate more than four times that of the general population.

The NFL, along with the NBA and MLB, should look further into the possibility of allowing their players to use medical marijuana as a mechanism for managing pain. Some studies have even suggested that cannabidiol, the element of cannabis that doesn’t cause a high, could assist concussion recovery. It seems like a reasonable assumption that many players are already doing it. Martellus Bennet, a former NFL tight end, estimated that almost 90 percent of players in the NFL were using cannabis to manage their pain, expressing that he would be surprised to find out that a teammate was not. In the aforementioned Bleacher Report video, several of the players make reference to knowing that not only do many players smoke marijuana, but so do some coaches and even front office officials. They claimed that the NFL knew what was going on, and the tests only took place to keep the NFL’s image intact.

At this point, when most of the NFL is likely using marijuana to manage pain — and the NFL seems to be aware of that fact — why even feign ignorance? Why continue to give players large and dangerous amounts of drugs that typically have adverse long-term health effects? Player safety is an ongoing concern in the NFL, particularly with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the forefront of people’s minds, and the league should be doing all it can to improve.