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NFL Funds Marijuana Research As Federal Prohibition ‘Adversely’ Impacts Studies Into Opioid Alternative For Players

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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.

At a press conference on Tuesday, a representative from the NFL-NFLPA’s Joint Pain Management Committee (PMC) said “clearly there are a lot of great ideas in this space and there’s a lot of important research that needs to be funded.”

Asked by Marijuana Moment if the ongoing prohibition of cannabis as a Schedule I drug is to blame for the relative lack of definitive science on cannabis’s effects, PMC cochair Dr. Kevin Hill said the federal policy “definitely adversely affects the level of research that is allowed.”

That said, Hill also pointed to a lack of funding into this area of research and said it “affects it more adversely.”

“You have a lot of folks—both states and companies—who are profiting considerably through the sale of cannabis and other cannabinoids, and most of those groups are not contributing to the science,” he said, “I think that’s one of the great things about this request for proposals is that obviously the players are stakeholders and we want them to have the best in terms of pain management, so we’re interested in trying to find out some of the answers that people have been saying that they’re interested in for a number of years.”

The grant funding opportunity is meant to “solicit proposals from investigators who have the current capability to carry out studies aimed at supplementing the PMC’s knowledge about pain management and athletic performance in elite football players,” a description states.

The league specifically wants proposals on three areas of inquiry:

  • the effects of cannabinoids on pain in elite football players (post-surgical and/or in daily pain management)
  • the effects of non-pharmacologic treatments on pain in elite football players (postsurgical and/or in daily pain management)
  • the effects of cannabis or cannabinoids on athletic performance (e.g., psychomotor, reaction time, cardiorespiratory function) in elite football players.”

Pre-proposal applications are due by July 31, the NFL notice states.

The committee issued an initial request for information on the issue in February, and was given a series of primary research objectives. That included exploring whether substances such as marijuana or CBD could replace opioids for routine pain management in players and the impact of cannabinoids on athletic performance.

The joint NFL-NFLPA committee held two informational forums on CBD last year, and while their initial findings were not definitive, PMC determined that the non-intoxicating cannabis compound shows promise in the treatment of some forms of pain, but the science doesn’t currently live up to the “hype.”

The panel “really felt there was not enough research and information on benefits of other alternatives to opioids for both acute and chronic pain” after those forums, a representative said on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the league’s drug testing policy changed demonstrably last year as part of a collective bargaining agreement.

Under the policy, NFL players will not face the possibility of being suspended from games over positive tests for any drug—not just marijuana.

The decision reflects a significant shift in the league’s approach to drug use by players, with the agreement emphasizing the need to focus on “ensuring evaluation and treatment” rather than punishment. Now those who test positive for drugs, exhibit behaviors that indicate drug misuse or self-refer themselves will be required to enter an “intervention program” where they would receive an evaluation and treatment plan.

Testing positive for prohibited substances after that point would result in a half-week salary loss for first violations, a one-week salary loss for second violations, a two-week salary loss for third violations and a three-week salary loss for fourth and subsequent violations. The threat of suspensions would be removed.

In a similar vein, the MLB decided in 2019 to remove cannabis from the league’s list of banned substances. Baseball players can consume marijuana without risk of discipline, but officials clarified last year that they can’t work while under the influence and can’t enter into sponsorship contracts with cannabis businesses, at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, a temporary NBA policy not to randomly drug test players for marijuana amid the coronavirus pandemic may soon become permanent, the league’s top official said in December. Rather than mandate blanket tests, Commissioner Adam Silver said the league would be reaching out to players who show signs of problematic dependency, not those who are “using marijuana casually.”

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Image element courtesy of Marco Verch.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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