April 20, 2017
Today is April 20, or 4/20, a counterculture holiday celebrating the consumption of marijuana. Many students may be partaking in this holiday themselves. Given today’s date, the timing seems appropriate to discuss professional athletes advocating for the legalization of marijuana as a pain management tool.
The push to legalize marijuana started with the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Now there are 28 states that have legal medical marijuana. In 2016, four states passed initiatives that legalized nonmedical marijuana by state referendum. In due time, leagues will have to face tough decisions as more states legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use.
In recent months, football has been receiving a lot of bad press. There have been many reports about medical staff allowing players to abuse painkillers. According to a 2011 study in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, over half of all retired NFL players used narcotic painkillers during their careers, and 71 percent of those ended up abusing those painkillers. Dr. Barth Wilsey, a pain medicine specialist at the University of California Davis Medical Center, said, “Pain is the main reason people ask for a prescription.” This winter, the NFL Players Association worked on a proposal to change the league’s drug policies.
Addiction is a major issue with narcotic painkillers. Calvin Johnson, a former Pro-Bowl Detroit Lions wide receiver retired after a relatively short career because of health concerns. He spoke about the availability of the painkillers, saying, “If you were hurting, then you could get them. If you needed Vicodin, call out, ‘My ankle hurt,’ you know. ‘I need, I need it. I can’t, I can’t play without it,’ or something like that. It was simple. That’s how easy it was to get them. So if you were dependent on them, they were readily available.” In the interview, he got attention by saying that team doctors gave out the pills “like candy.” While people can become addicted to marijuana, it is not inherently addictive. Marijuana “addiction” is associated with dependence. That is when a person feels withdrawal symptoms when not using the drug.
A second major issue with the painkillers is overdosing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, more than 14,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids. Pain specialist Dr. Daniel Clauw is a professor at the University of Michigan and has spent the last five years studying cannabis and pain management. He said, “You can’t directly die from taking a cannabinoid, the way tens of thousands of people are directly dying from opioids each year in the U.S.” His study found that when people had the option to use marijuana and/or opioids for chronic pain, they preferred to use marijuana, and thus, as they used marijuana, they used less opioids. As more research is done, it is becoming clear that marijuana may be a safer and more effective alternative to narcotic painkillers.
This puts the league in a tough situation: it has to protect its culture and identity. Professional sports leagues have their own codes of conduct and punishment systems, in addition to the legal justice system, in order to reflect their moral character. Leagues cannot endorse marijuana use, since it is illegal according to federal Law. While they cannot endorse it, they can and should stop testing their own players.
Just last week the NFL was in the news for a “random” drug test. New York Giants captain and linebacker Jonathan Casillas posted a picture on his Instagram feed smoking a hand-rolled cigar. The next day he received a message from the NFL saying he was selected for a “random offseason drug test.” What does the NFL gain from this? Nothing. It turned out he was smoking a cigar, but even if he was not, why should his decision warrant a suspension?
More research still has to be done, but the completed studies have shown positive trends about using marijuana as a painkiller. It is a safer and more effective alternative to narcotic painkillers. This is most pressing for the NFL, but all other professional leagues should pay close attention to this research. As more states legalize marijuana, they should capitalize on its benefits. Legal marijuana for athletes is about more than just recreational use but about saving lives.