In February, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked during the week of Super Bowl 50 about the league’s marijuana policy. Across the country, states were legalizing marijuana use in increasing numbers, and former NFL players were increasingly pushing for the league to reconsider marijuana’s potential to relieve the chronic pain inherent with such a brutal game.
But, in spite of those societal changes and the pleas of former players, the commissioner maintained the party line. The league’s drug policy, he said, was still in “the best interest of our players.” When asked in November for an update on the league’s stance, an NFL spokesperson had little to add.
Goodell did acknowledge that day that the league was aware of scientific developments in marijuana research. But for the NFL’s medical experts, it wasn’t enough. Until those experts change their view, “I don’t expect we will change ours,” he said.
Four months after that news conference, Heather Jackson picked up her phone to see the NFL’s office on her caller ID.
Jackson is the CEO of Realm of Caring, a Colorado-based nonprofit that, in recent months, has unexpectedly found itself at the forefront of marijuana research for NFL players. She founded Realm of Caring after seeing the positive effects of marijuana on her son, Zaki, who suffers from a condition that subjected him to as many as 200 seizures per day. Since he began a daily regimen of CBD – a non-psychoactive compound extracted from the cannabis plant – he hasn’t had a single incident.
Zaki’s story, which aired in a CNN segment, caught the attention of an influx of former NFL players, who were suddenly interested in CBD products for their chronic pain. Jackson, seeing an opportunity, unabashedly admits that she “wanted to use the NFL angle to help research and start a national conversation.”
That’s exactly what’s happened since, as Realm of Caring has partnered with Johns Hopkins University to commission two studies – one of current NFL players, the other of former players. Funding for such a study is difficult to come by, given the drug’s federal status. But upon hearing of the study, former Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, who has emerged as a vocal advocate of marijuana as pain-relief for NFL players, gave $80,000 to Realm of Caring for the study, after one visit to their Colorado facility.
The current player study, which is underway, is purely observational, but still the most extensive attempt yet at studying marijuana use in pro athletes. Participants were asked to volunteer medical information and detail their cannabis use, or lack thereof, by way of weekly surveys.
That study is how Jackson found herself answering a call from the NFL this summer. She’d been warned about the league’s power. Her initial concern was that it would attempt to shut down the study – or worse, derail it by subpoenaing player medical files, but the response, she says, was “more passive” than expected.
“Basically they said, ‘Yes, you can do it,’” Jackson recounts. “‘We’re not going to stand in your way. We want to know how the results come out.’”
Ryan Vandrey is still skeptical of what they may find. A Johns Hopkins associate professor who helped craft the study, Vandrey cautions that its results won’t definitively prove marijuana’s effectiveness in treating pain, but could be a vital “starting point.”
While there is a mountain of anecdotal evidence, as it stands, there have been no clinical trials to understand dosage, potential for abuse, or the types of pain it would be most effective treating – all of which are usually needed for mass approval. Many of those questions will take time – and additional research – to answer. But under normal circumstances, Vandrey says it would only take a year to provide a better grasp of marijuana’s pain-relief potential, “but we can’t do that study in NFL players right now because it’s banned by the league.”
For some advocates, pain relief may only the beginning of marijuana’s potential scientific benefits. Past research has shown that cannabis could play a role in reducing and treating concussions. Some preclinical studies have also suggested CBD could contain neuroprotective properties, which, for a sport in the midst of a brain trauma crisis, would be significant.
“We’re potentially talking about something that could prevents the changes (caused by) CTE,” says Dr. Bryan Doner, a Pittsburgh-based doctor and medicinal marijuana advocate. “Boy, doesn’t that makes you wonder?”
Any hard scientific evidence of CBD as a neuroprotectant, though, is limited. Some advocates point to a 2003 patent owned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which claims exclusive rights on the use of cannabinoids for treating neurological diseases, as a sign that even the government sees potential in CBD. While no human data exists, studies done on animal models have shown encouraging results.
Still, Vandrey warns of treating CBD “as a miracle cure that fixes everything in your brain.”
And indeed, at the L.A. Convention Center for the Cannabis World Expo in September, the possibilities have many dreaming up NFL locker rooms where CBD pills are handed out before games and long-term concerns over brain trauma become a thing of the past. On stage for a panel on marijuana and the NFL, former players Jake Plummer, Nate Jackson, and Lorenzo Neal shared stories of the chronic pain suffered over the course of years on the field. Each understands that the NFL isn’t likely to push past its comfort zone, when it comes to judging the medicinal potential of marijuana – a drug that the league has stigmatized for decades.
But soon, with research finally in the works, they hope they’ll have the scientific evidence to prove such a future is more than a pipe dream.
“Do we know if it will protect your brain and lessen the effects of CTE?” Plummer asks. “No, not yet. But doesn’t it make sense to at least try and find out?”