Why the NFL Is on the Wrong Side of Marijuana History

The NFL still doesn't allow players to use marijuana as a painkiller, even though pills remain a problem for the world's richest sports league.

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Complex Original

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Seantrel Henderson isn’t your typical user. Marijuana serves as a pain reliever for the 24-year-old Buffalo Bills offensive lineman who was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease one year ago. Doctors told Henderson medical marijuana was the best medicine for his inflammatory bowel disease, which caused the 2014 seventh-round selection to have 80 centimeters of intestines removed during two different surgeries last year. Still, the NFL suspended Henderson 10 games in late November for violating the league’s substance abuse policy for the second time this season. 

That’s eight more games than former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was initially suspended for violating the NFL’s domestic violence policy back in 2014, and it’s the same total former Dallas Cowboys lineman Josh Brent received for a drunk driving incident that resulted in the death of ex-teammate Jerry Brown. Former NFL player Eugene Monroe has had enough of the NFL’s arbitrary suspensions. 


“It’s shameful anytime a player or a person is scrutinized for the use of medical cannabis,” Monroe told Complex Sports. “It’s really unfortunate that the NFL continues to punish guys for this. I hope that sooner rather than later the policy is changed.”

Don’t count on the NFL’s collectively bargained policy changing anytime soon. According to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, the league continues to research how to enhance the health and wellness of its players. In an emailed statement to Complex Sports, McCarthy explained the rationale behind the league’s current policy against marijuana: “Our position on its use remains consistent with federal law and workplace policies across the country. If they changed their views, we would explore possible changes.”

But the NFL’s strict stance against marijuana hasn’t stopped former and current players from speaking up about its medical benefits. In March, Monroe became the first active player to support the use of cannabis for chronic pain and sports-related injuries. Monroe, a former offensive lineman who played seven seasons in the league, didn’t speak up about marijuana because he wanted to, but rather because he felt he had to. 

“I was inspired by multiple injuries and being prescribed pills such as Vicodin to mask the pain,” said Monroe, who played for both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens during his NFL career. “I know those pills were compounding other issues. Cannabis is a much safer drug than the opioids I was getting prescribed.”

the business of football involves destroying your body. You would think that the league would support a guy who is trying to do everything he can to stay on the field.

Monroe never played another NFL game after publicly proclaiming his support for the use of medical marijuana earlier this year. The 29-year-old only played six games in 2015 due to a concussion and shoulder injury, and was subsequently released by the Ravens this past July. He announced his retirement from professional football five days after being released. While Monroe confirmed to Complex that he had contract offers from both the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, some people believe the league blackballed Monroe for his controversial stance and prompted his early retirement. While the former offensive lineman believes there are teams that would support his views if he was still playing, former NFL punter Chris Kluwe isn’t so sure.

“Eugene could probably still be playing in the league. Maybe not as a starter, but definitely as a backup,” Kluwe told Complex. “The league doesn’t want him. If your general manager or owner believes you are becoming a part of something controversial, it’s far easier for them to replace you. They would rather replace you with someone else who is less talented than deal with the controversy.”

Kluwe, who formerly played for the Minnesota Vikings, admits he smoked marijuana at least once a week for pain relief after games during his NFL career. Kluwe estimated that roughly 50–60 percent of the players in the league smoke marijuana either recreationally or for pain relief. Kluwe never failed a drug test during his eight-year career and that’s largely because he knew how to beat the system.

“The NFL gives you so much time not to mess up,” Kluwe said. “You come back for organized team activities in March and you have a team meeting where you are notified that recreational drug testing starts in mid April and runs through early August. All you have to do is stop smoking around the end of March, pass your test and then you are good for the rest of the season.”


Today, Kluwe has a prescription to smoke medical marijuana in California and is currently involved in a trial study testing the effectiveness of three different types of hemp oils. According to him, oils are superior to smoking in that they provide greater pain relief and don’t grant as much of a high as marijuana. However, the effectiveness of medical marijuana is largely based on anecdotal evidence. And though marijuana remains classified federally as a Schedule 1 drug, the ongoing push for national legalization could eventually force the NFL to reconsider its policy.

“If it’s scientifically proven that a pill or oil form of marijuana without the side effects of getting you high can relieve pain, this is something the NFL may want to consider during the next CBA,” former NFL team doctor David Chao told Complex.

Dr. Chao spent almost 20 years in locker rooms and on the sidelines working with the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, and Chicago Bears. While he understands the reasons why NFL players would look to use medical marijuana, the orthopedist believes athletes should explore every other pain-relieving option before turning to weed and pills. 

“Clearly it is not the answer for guys to play through the pain and take pills,” Chao said. “To substitute pain pills for marijuana isn’t the answer either. Pills and medical marijuana should be a last resort. Injury prevention and body maintenance will help you avoid getting into a situation filled with chronic pain.”

For most current and former players, chronic pain comes with the territory of being an elite football player. For others like Leonard Marshall, life after football is filled with much more than just chronic pain. The two-time Super Bowl champion was diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in 2013 and uses hemp oil to deal with the memory loss, mood swings, and severe headaches that result on a daily basis from his condition. 


“I take the cannabidiol (CBD) every day and it helps even my mood swings and bring back memory loss,” Marshall told Complex. “CTE has had a major impact on my marriage and on my relationship with my daughter. I’m so much better than I was a few years ago because of what I’m using now.”

Marshall is currently a brand ambassador for a company called Elixinol that specializes in making and selling CBD products featuring trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active chemical in cannabis. The former NFL defensive lineman used prescriptions pills to provide relief for his brain trauma in the past, but according to him, no remedy is as effective as medical marijuana. While public statements from companies like Elixinol haven’t had any impact in changing the NFL’s views on medical marijuana, Marshall is confident the perception of CBD products will begin to change. 

“I believe that CBD can help people with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and short term memory loss,” Marshall said. “I have never seen anyone die from the extract of a plant. I haven’t found something that helps me more than CBD. I’ve seen millions of people die from the use of opioids.”

But the NFL isn’t as concerned with marijuana’s alleged helpfulness in terms of pain relief. Its past history of punishing players like Henderson—whose suspension will carry over into either the playoffs or next season—reveals the league’s unwillingness to budge on its marijuana stance. 

“[Henderson’s] suspension makes no sense,” Kluwe said. “Medical marijuana won’t affect his ability to play on the field. It's all so backwards because the business of football involves destroying your body. You would think that the league would support a guy who is trying to do everything he can to stay on the field.”

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