How Three Pro Athletes Are Fighting Marijuana Prejudice in the NFL and NBA

Opioids over cannabis? That's adding insult to injury.

Amid growing concerns of an opioid epidemic impacting not just the NFL but the overall U.S. population, professional athletes are speaking out about the healing properties of cannabis. At a recent Arc View Group Investor Forum held in early May 2016, in Portland, Oregon, Cliff Robinson, former NBA basketball all-star with the Portland Trailblazers, described how his Uncle Spliffy Sports Cannabis (USSC) products "will benefit casual, amateur, and professional athletes and enrich the athletes' experience and outcomes while improving preparedness, focus, recovery, and relaxation."

NFL players Ricky Williams and Eugene Monroe joined Robinson on stage to speak about the benefits of cannabis for professional athletes. While cannabis helped Williams deal with the daily grind of football physically and psychologically, his cannabis use caused him to be treated like a criminal. Said Williams to The Kind: "I was put in a substance abuse program and tested five times a month. If I chose to travel, I would have to let them know where I was going. At any time they could test me, and I'd only have four hours to piss in a cup." 

Free agent Eugene Monroe is the only open weed advocate playing currently in the NFL.

Monroe, the first active NFL player to openly advocate for the use of cannabinoids to treat chronic pain, describes the ordeals experienced by NFL players on a daily basis. "The biggest, strongest men literally walking on the face of this earth throw themselves at each other in the most violent ways. It causes a lot of pain and a lot of damage to the body. You can visualize how physical the game is, but you have no idea unless you've been on the field in NFL gear how violent the game is," Monroe told The Kind.

According to a Frontline investigation aired in 2015, researchers with Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs discovered that 96 percent of the NFL players they examined suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This degenerative disease affects people who suffer from repetitive trauma to the head, and can lead to conditions such as memory loss, depression, dementia, and early death.

This discrepancy among professional sports leagues seems to be a racially motivated. 

Monroe asks a seemingly obvious question of people who object to players getting high on cannabis: "What do you think happens when you prescribe a player Ambien, Oxycontin or any of these powerful pain medicines that are altering people's state of minds and causing them to become addicted? Players are already high on the pills their doctor is prescribing to them," he tells The Kind. Furthermore, while a drug like Adderall may enhance a players endurance and quickness, Monroe quips, "There's no way you can enhance your performance with marijuana."

To date, NFL team doctors prescribe opiates to treat players' injuries despite the crippling side effects and addictive nature of these drugs. A study conducted by investigators at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that 7 percent of the former NFL players surveyed were currently using painkilling opioid drugs. This statistic is more than four times the rate of opioid use in the general population, where an opioid epidemic is raging

In addition to cannabis's anti-inflammatory properties that can mitigate the chronic pain caused by pulled muscles, joint strains, and other sports-related injuries, Monroe adds that "cannabis has anti-neurological properties as well."

Retired NFL player Ricky Williams can now openly smoke weed.

The legalization of cannabis is prompting research studies that may give the NFL scientific proof of cannabis's medical benefits. Preliminary research indicates that states with medical cannabis laws have significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates. Other research studies point to cannabis as an effective aid in treating chronic pain with the potential to reduce long-term brain injury and restore neurobehavioral function. 

Monroe is a vocal and funding proponent of these studies. The player donated $80,000 to Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania to study how cannabis affects football players. Presently, he does not take cannabis to alleviate his chronic pain due to the NFL's current testing policies. 

"More African Americans are in the NBA and NFL and more of them smoke; so let's test. The guys who are getting busted are mostly African American players."

Michael Cindrich, CEO and one of the co-founders of the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, seeks through this organization to give players and the public the option of an organic treatment for injury and illness with cannabis. The Coalition's goals include funding research into the medicinal properties of cannabis and establishing treatment centers to assist athletes seeking a healthier alternative to prescription pain killers. At present, approximately 50 NFL players are connected to the group. This number is expected to skyrocket. Younger players tend to not have the same concerns about the stigma associated with cannabis use that can be found among older players.

Even though the use of medical marijuana is legal in 26 states and the District of Columbia, and the NHL and MLB do not test players for cannabis, both the NFL and the NBA still classify cannabis as a banned substance. In Robinson's assessment, this discrepancy among professional sports leagues seems to be a racially motivated. "More African Americans are in the NBA and NFL and more of them smoke; so let's test. The guys who are getting busted are mostly African American players," he tells The Kind.

Laremy Tunsil was listed as a potential top-three pick for the 2016 draft until a hacker leaked a video posted on his Twitter account showing him taking a bong hit.

Both the NFL and the NFL Players Association uphold the current policy. In March 2016, the NFL Players Association stated, "Marijuana is currently a banned substance under the collectively bargained Substances of Abuse Policy. Both parties to the Policy (NFL and NFLPA) seek guidance from the independent medical professionals who administer the policy, and no change to marijuana's status as a banned substance has been recommended by those medical professionals."

At the annual "State of the NFL" media event in February 2016, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said there are no plans to change the league's policy on medical marijuana, despite two-thirds of NFL franchises being in states that allow its use. "We always review our drug policy. That is something that our medical professionals do on a regular basis. We are not restricted, obviously, by the state laws. It's an NFL policy, and we believe it's the correct policy for now and in the best interest of our players and the long-term health of our players."

While reports indicate that as many as 60 percent of current NFL players use cannabis, these numbers cannot be verified due to the penalties imposed by the NFL, coupled with the social stigma associated with cannabis. For example, Laremy Tunsil was listed as a potential top-three pick for the 2016 draft. Then a hacker posted a video on Tunsil's Twitter account showing the lineman taking a bong hit. His draft status dived, and Tunsil signed with the Miami Dolphins as a #13 pick. Among retired NFL players, the cannabis stigma could cause loss of endorsements and sportscasting gigs. 

Monroe and Williams believe that the largest barrier to reducing this stigma remains public opinion. Says Williams to The Kind: "The NFL is a large business that depends on fan support. It's important for them to listen to their fans and follow public opinion."

Also, Monroe notes that alcohol companies are some of the NFL's biggest sponsors and that alcohol is the drug of choice among the NFL fan base. "Alcohol is a substance we know can cause long-term health problems. Alcohol can also kill those who are the victim of a traumatic incident as a result of another person's drinking alcohol. That doesn't happen with cannabis," he told The Kind.

Williams feels the fastest way to overcome the stigma is for players to speak up as a collective voice. In his estimation, "If the players take the lead and make their health and not money their number-one priority, you can see a change in the rules."

Since his retirement from the NFL, Williams continues to advocate for cannabis as a healthy alternative for athletes. Recently, he became a partner in the world's first cannabis friendly gym, Power Plant Fitness in San Francisco. His partner is Jim McAlpine, founder of the 420 Games, which hosts national athletic competitions to encourage cannabis users to become more active.

The film Concussion (2015) coupled with a lawsuit filed by approximately 70 former players brought the NFL's years of inaction in dealing with head trauma to the national stage. While the NFL cannot change its past, it has the opportunity to change the future. In a recent Washington Post profile of Monroe, author Adam Kilgore writes that NFL officials participated in a conference call with medical marijuana researchers. The officials appeared to express genuine curiosity in finding a positive solution to their league's medical crises. 

Does the NFL's willingness to listen herald the beginnings of change for the NFL's stance on medical marijuana? Stay tuned.