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The Twist and Turns of NFL Players Using Marijuana

 NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell takes questions during a news conference in New York. As attitudes toward marijuana soften, and science slowly teases out its possible benefits for concussions and other injuries, the NFL is reaching a critical point in navigating its tenuous relationship with the drug (Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP)

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell takes questions during a news conference in New York. As attitudes toward marijuana soften, and science slowly teases out its possible benefits for concussions and other injuries, the NFL is reaching a critical point in navigating its tenuous relationship with the drug (Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP)

NFL Players Stance On Marijuana Use Won't Tackle The Real Problem

By Lee Igel May 5, 2017'

During a recent interview on ESPN's Outside The Lines, NFL Players Association president DeMaurice Smith said the union is planning to talk with league representatives about the therapeutic use of marijuana by players. That plan includes proposing a way for the league to better recognize the medicinal motives behind players who test positive for marijuana. Smith is interested in making sure there is an understanding about “whether a player is suffering from something other than just a desire to smoke marijuana.” In other words, there should be less rushing to judgment that players who use marijuana are doing so for recreational—not medicinal—purposes.

The players' position makes scientific and ethical sense. Professional football is a sport in which injury and pain are the norm rather than exception. Much of the treatment for this misery during the past few decades has included liberal use of highly-addictive, opiate-based medications such as Vicodin and Oxycontin. Marijuana has entered the scene as a safer alternative.

While not without its own adverse health effects and uncertain risks, marijuana and its extracts are increasingly being used by all number of people who are attempting to treat conditions with a substance other than a narcotic. There are signs of it being a good way to go. One decade-long study, funded by the United States National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), showed a reduction in deaths from opioid-related overdoses at the same time there was an uptick in state legislation legalizing medical marijuana. Another study, conducted by the RAND Corporation and supported by a grant from NIDA, concluded that there is a positive relationship between legal access to medical marijuana dispensaries and lower numbers of prescriptions for pain-relieving opioids, use of opioids without a prescription, hospital admissions for prescription opioid use disorders, and deaths from prescription opioid overdoses.

So, the science is there for the NFLPA when it sits down at the table to get into collective bargaining with the NFL. And anyone in either party who is concerned about why marijuana is being used by players may be comforted by the news that the Trump administration is paying closer attention to enforcing laws around the recreational use.Even so, there is a different problem from the one they will be negotiating. The union and the league are about to argue over a symptom, not a cause.

As the NFLPA and NFL get to figuring out things about medical marijuana use by players, there is a good chance that they will do an end-around on the main issue: why players are using marijuana in the first place. Discussing therapeutic aspects is important and worthwhile. But whatever the outcome, it is a band-aid.

NFL football is a brutal sport. Concussions, broken bones, smashed knees, hyperextended joints, and broken toes and fingers are all present at every game and a lot of practices. If the only way to get through a season of massive men colliding at high speed is to smoke dope early and often, then what is the message the NFL is sending to athletes in college, high school, and younger? This problem needs a solution that tolerance toward marijuana use by players does not offer.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is the Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. Lee H. Igel, PhD, is associate professor in the Tisch Institute at New York University. Both are affiliated with the NYU Sports and Society program.