Is the Tide of Marijuana Use Turning in Sports?

The move in that direction was perhaps most evident when former NBA commissioner David Stern voiced support for the league permitting medical marijuana.

Marijuana plant

Image via WikiCommons

Marijuana plant

Slowly but surely, it looks like the answer to that question is yes—for medicinal purposes, at least.

As marijuana becomes more accepted by the law and society at large in the United State, the major professional sports have been moving towards a more permissive and open direction towards marijuana use, albeit at a glacial pace.

The move in that direction was perhaps most evident last week, when former NBA commissioner David Stern voiced support for the league permitting medical marijuana.

"I think we have to change the Collective Bargaining Agreement and let you do what is legal in your state," Stern said in an interview with Uninterrupted. "If marijuana is now in the process of being legalized, I think you should be allowed to do what's legal in your state."

The NBA issued a statement in response to Stern’s comments, which took a much more reserved tone.

“While Commissioner Silver has said that we are interested in better understanding the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana, our position remains unchanged regarding the use by current NBA players of marijuana for recreational purposes,” Mike Bass, executive vice president of communications, said.

The NFL recently relaxed its drug policy in 2014, raising the threshold for a positive test and eliminating suspensions for second-time offenders. Much like the NBA, the NFL has said it is open to studying medical marijuana for pain management.

Several athletes have vouched for certain marijuana treatments, and their supposed effectiveness in treating symptoms associated with life after football—although all evidence of their success is only anecdotal. This includes longtime NFL stars like Jim McMahon and Kyle Turley.

While no hard data exists on the effects of medical marijuana treatments on athletes. Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller, along with Dr. Ryan Vandrey, are trying to fill the information void.


The duo is working on a study into marijuana treatments and their effectiveness in treating pain experienced by retired athletes who played contact sports. This study is being done through the When the Bright Lights Fade campaign, which was launched to finance studies into “exploring how the use of cannabinoids, specifically cannabidiol (or CBD), can help treat and prevent the onset of symptoms associated with CTE and traumatic brain injury.”

"We’re essentially looking to see what [the retired players’] are using," Bonn-Miller said. "What their use of cannabis or specific cannabinoids is and how it may be impacting their symptoms over time."

Cannabidiol is a chemical compound found in marijuana, and one that is being vetted extensively in this ongoing study. It’s important to note that medical marijuana is a blanket term for what can be a multitude of substances and compounds. There is far more nuance to medical marijuana than just smoking pot.

"We're not talking about traditional weed that you pass a bowl with, generally speaking," Bonn-Miller said of CBD treatments.

Once more data is available, Bonn-Miller believes more pharmaceutical companies will start manufacturing cannabinoids. And once these companies standardize and formalize the medicinal marijuana field, more leagues could start changing their tune about it.

"Clearly the NFL is not against medication, they give out tons of medication," Bonn-Miller said. "They're just against giving out something we don't know anything about that hasn't been proven to work."

Some pharmaceutical companies have made some inroads here. The FDA recently granted an  an Orphan Drug Designation to Insys Therapeutics, for the company's cannabidiol treatment for brain tumors. The U.K.’s GW Pharmaceuticals has long touted a cannabinoid medicine for multiple sclerosis patients.

Jim McMahon Smokes Marijuana Getty

Standardized treatments like this, according to Bonn-Miller, will be key to establishing the substance’s legitimacy in professional sports leagues.

“You're not going to get team doctors handing out bags of weed to NFL players. It's not going to happen,” Bonn-Miller said. “But if there's a prescription for a cannabinoid medication that has a dose and specified delivery method and clinical trial datat to show that it works for inflammation, that's where you're going to see [acceptance in professional sports.]”

Another factor that could catalyze openness to marijuana treatments is the opioid crisis—particularly in the NFL. The league has a well-publicized and reportedly odious relationship with painkillers: 42 percent of NFL players surveyed by ESPN last year said they have had a teammate they thought became addicted to pills because of “NFL painkiller abuse.” 61 percent also said that they believe fewer players would take painkillers if marijuana were an allowed substance.

“Anyway you cut it, marijuana is going to be safer than a lot of other stuff people are using,” Bonn-Miller said.
This may persuade some retired athletes consider experimenting with an alternative—even if there isn’t much data behind it. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, for instance, has said marijuana wasn’t helpful or effective in mitigating his back pain or other symptoms associated with a long playing career playing. But if an ailing former player came to him today, he would recommend CBD as a treatment option

“I think that CBD is a great starting point because CBD, which comes in a lot of different forms, has very few side effects, has no addiction potential, and has been shown to help with pain, inflammation and to help with memory and cognition,” Bonn-Miller said. “CBD is a place to start, and there's very little downside to giving it a try. It could help populations that are suffering.”

When prescribing a medical marijuana treatment, doctors are to be specific about what kind of substance is being prescribed and what kind of symptoms are being targeted. Not all marijuana treatments are created equal, and not all marijuana treatments are even beneficial for athletes going through pain.

“I just think we need to be more specific about cannabis,” Bonn-Miller said. “Because somebody might say 'Okay, I'm going to start using marijuana' because it might be helpful, and not know what types of marijuana to use. And they might not get any benefits because they're using the wrong stuff.”

As far as recreational use goes, it doesn't sound like much will change in the future. Leagues have remained steadfastly opposed to allowing recreational marijuana, as the NBA and NFL have stated, and there is not much incentive to change things there.

However, it does look like medical marijuana may be making its way to professional sports in due time. Research, development, and the current opiates landscape are changing some opinions. But not the decision makers.

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