Doctors and Players for NFL Cannabis Reform
The National Football League’s Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse prohibits the “illegal use of drugs,” including cannabis in a list that implicitly equates it with substances like cocaine, opioids, MDMA and PCP. If they test positive for cannabis, NFL players can be fined, suspended and potentially banished from the league.
As it stands now, the Policy prevents players from participating in the medical marijuana programs that are currently legal in states where 22 NFL franchises play their home games. While the discrete use of medical marijuana would seem to be allowed under the Policy’s ‘Therapeutic Use Exemption’ (TUE), we understand such exemptions have never been granted as a matter of practice. According to an ESPN poll released In November 2016, 61% of NFL players believed painkiller use would decrease if the league allowed marijuana as an alternative. For recovery and pain control, more players actually preferred marijuana over painkillers. At a time when 28,000 Americans per year are dying from opioid overdoses, with NFL players four times more likely than the general population to develop painkiller addictions, the players’ feedback should come as no surprise.
On November 8, 2016, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada legalized marijuana for personal consumption. They joined Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia, where it was already legal for adults. That represents about 25% of the US population, and includes seven NFL franchises. Regardless, the NFL still prohibits its players from using cannabis in these states where it is now completely legal.
In solidarity with many current and former NFL players, we recently submitted an Open Letter to the NFL. We recommend that the NFL and its Physicians Society:
- treat cannabis like alcohol under the Policy
- consider medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for pain management
- support promising research into potential neuroprotective effects of cannabinoids
- play a leading role in addressing the overprescription of opioids across the league
We also make the following observations. Each year, many NFL players are suspended for violations of the Policy. Almost all are African-American. A failed marijuana test accounts for many, if not most, of the suspensions. The disproportionate impact of the war on drugs is beyond dispute at the national level, with blacks proving almost four times more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession. A Major League Baseball player would have to fail multiple tests before being sanctioned, almost exclusively with fines. The National Hockey League does not suspend players who test positive for cannabis. Incidentally, both leagues are predominantly comprised of white players. Only the NFL and the NBA—the two leagues with the higher concentrations of African-American players, at 68% and 74% respectively—routinely discipline their players with suspension and banishment. As physicians, we are here to promote the health and safety of players who deserve better.