On June 8th, a commission formed between the NFL and the league’s players’ union plans to award up to $1 million in grants for researchers to investigate the therapeutic potential of marijuana, CBD, and other alternatives to opioids for treating pain.
The cannabis industry has long looked to major league sports as a hallmark for revenue comparison. At the end of the day, major league sports are mainstream businesses. On average, the NFL generates $15-$18 billion annually. The cannabis industry in the United States alone has far surpassed that benchmark.
What the NFL says about cannabis matters. The NFL’s awarding of $1 million in research grants to investigate the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids echoes Amazon’s recent announcement nudging the federal government to get its act together.
The cannabis industry has long looked to major league sports as a hallmark for hitting a revenue … [+]
For decades, federally approved marijuana research in the U.S. has only been allowed at the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) which is part of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Historically, NIDA’s research mandate has been to reinforce why a substance like cannabis is so deleterious to human beings and society that it should be maintained as a Schedule I controlled substance, defined as having no therapeutic benefit, no medicinal benefit, and a high potential for abuse.
Despite promises of reform in cannabis research, the federal government still can only receive research proposals for controlled substances showing this large potential for abuse and addiction. This has been challenged legally by Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist and former clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Further, in 2017, 12-year-old Alexis Bortell, along with a few other plaintiffs including former NFL lineman, Marvin Washington, sued the federal government for keeping marijuana a Schedule 1 drug. This case was dismissed, but a federal appeals court reinstated it. Two years later, there’s been no official response from the government and the case is still pending. A cannabinoid such as cannabinol (CBD) can be derived from both legal definitions of cannabis — marijuana or industrial hemp — and is now being used in pharmaceutical drugs, like Epidiolex. Therefore, the Schedule 1 designation no longer stands.
The NFL isn’t talking about advertising cannabis. This is about the medical, or at the very least, therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids, part of a growing acceptance of cannabis by major league sports organizations.
In March 2020, a collective bargaining agreement approved by NFL team owners removed the possibility of players being suspended from games over positive tests for any substance — not just marijuana. In 2019, the MLB removed cannabis from the league’s list of banned substances. Last year, the NBA introduced a temporary policy against randomly drug testing players for marijuana amid the pandemic; it will likely become permanent. In January of 2021, the UFC announced that it would no longer punish athletes who test positive for marijuana. Over the last few years, the NHL has taken a progressive stance toward cannabis, and in 2019 the NHL alumni association signed an agreement with a Canadian cannabis company to determine whether it can help ex-players quit opioids.
Think about the heightened awareness surrounding traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in current and retired athletes. In 2017, the medical journal JAMA published a study that found CTE was present in 99% of deceased NFL players’ brains that were donated to scientific research. The NFL’s financial support for cannabinoid research comes as a result of evaluating a potentially beneficial therapy to help its players.
Beyond traumatic injuries, there’s also the potential for muscle recovery and relief from inflammation. Former badass Philadelphia Flyer, Riley Cote, a guy you would not want to be facing because he’ll stick his elbow in your throat over and over again, has publicly discussed using cannabis for pain relief, nutritional support, and day-to-day development.
Despite cannabis still being treated as a Schedule 1 substance, it is well documented that there are novel anti-inflammatory qualities of cannabinoids.
Ultimately, the NFL is a business. The league is now putting pressure on the federal government, not unlike Amazon, which just threw public support for the MORE Act to advance marijuana legalization in the United States. At a minimum, we have to be able to research this plant to scientifically determine whether it is beneficial to human beings. This is particularly true for athletes so kudos to the NFL for lifting this torch and doing right by the players.
The therapeutic potential of cannabis has also been advocated by Athletes for CARE, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2017, led by former players finding support, opportunity, and purpose in life by using their influence for social change. The organization aims to improve health and wellness options worldwide for current and former athletes living with mental and physical illnesses, including chronic pain, depression, anxiety, PTSD, CTE, TBI, substance abuse, and opioid dependency.
Executive Director of Athletes for CARE, Anna Valent, comments, “We are excited that the NFL is putting a small amount of funding into research on the therapeutic use of cannabis and cannabinoids, like CBD. We hope this is a beginning and means a shift in attitude towards cannabis as a treatment option for many conditions. Hopefully, this small investment will give them the confidence to integrate cannabis into their other research initiatives as well, such as the hundreds of millions of dollars they have invested in head trauma research. There is evidence that cannabinoids can protect against brain injuries and help in the healing process and it should be considered for these studies as well. At the end of the day, it’s not only an ethical issue to protect the long term health of their athletes, but it is also good business.”
The path to legalization is paved by clinical research. Anecdotally, we’ve heard millions of personal stories about how the cannabis plant has improved quality of life. From Charlotte Figi to Dr. Mechoulam’s research at the school of Medicinal Chemistry at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, we know there’s a symbiotic relationship between cannabinoids and the human body. We know and have documented the novelty of the human endocannabinoid system. The federal government has dragged its feet, continuing to claim that the plant has no therapeutic value when we know unequivocally that it does. We’re seeing once again mainstream business take a step of action in the absence of sensible policy from the federal government — this can create a turning point. We need the influence of organizations like the NFL to push the cannabis conversation forward. It’s not just about legalization, but putting an end to decades of failed drug policy. With momentum from the NFL and Amazon, this may finally mark the new frontier of American cannabis — because we’ve all waited long enough.