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NFL Is Putting More Money Into Research On CBD As An Opioid Alternative For Players With Concussions



The National Football League (NFL) and its players union announced on Thursday that they are jointly awarding another round of funding to support independent research on the therapeutic benefits of CBD as a pain treatment alternative to opioids for players with concussions.

A total of $526,525 is being granted for two studies, including one that will be led by the American Society of Pain and Neuroscience (ASPN) to explore cannabidiol and non-invasive vagal nerve stimulation (nVNS) as alternative treatments for post-concussion headache pain.

“New treatment avenues such as cannabinoids and non-drug options such as [nVNS] have shown promise as a potential alternative to opioid-based treatments in their effects on the inflammatory responses to concussion,” ASPN said in a description of the research project.

“This randomized study—first-of-its-kind research—will compare nVNS and cannabidiol (CBD) in contact sport athletes experiencing PTH to current standard of care treatment,” it says. “The pilot data gathered in this study will guide future investigations into treatment of patients with post-traumatic headache.”

NFL and the NFL Players Association have spent the last few years promoting research into the benefits and risks of cannabinoids like CBD. Last year, the league authorized $1 million in grants for a pair of studies looking into the efficacy of marijuana and its components in managing football players’ pain and providing neuroprotection from concussions.

“We are always seeking new knowledge, techniques, and tools to ensure that NFL athletes are treated with the best possible care,” NFL Chief Medical Officer Allen Sills said in a press release on Thursday. “We are proud to lead the way on investigating how the use of CBD and other alternative measures could positively impact pain management for players. As within the broader scope of player health and safety, we want to ensure every treatment at our disposal clears the appropriate medical standard for wider use.”

Kevin Hill, co-chair of the NFL-NFLPA Pain Management Committee, said that it’s “our hope that these studies will help the players manage the pain that may be a part of professional football.”

A commissioner of the NFL and the league’s players union first previewed the funding plan in June 2022, emphasizing the strong interest among players and other stakeholders in exploring the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.

The joint NFL-NFLPA committee held two informational forums on CBD in 2020.

Outside of the research context, NFL’s drug testing policy changed demonstrably in 2020 as part of a collective bargaining agreement. It stipulates that players will not face the possibility of being suspended from games over positive tests for any drug—not just marijuana.

Other sports leagues are similarly adopted revised policies as the state-level cannabis legalization movement continues to spread.

For example, a National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) committee focused on promoting health and wellness for student athletes is proposing to remove marijuana from the organization’s banned substances list.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) has removed drug testing requirements for THC, while allowing players to passively invest in the industry. It clarified in May that players will not be able to promote marijuana companies under its latest collective bargaining agreement, however.

Earlier this year, Nevada sports regulators voted to send a proposed regulatory amendment to the governor that would formally protect athletes from being penalized over using or possessing marijuana in compliance with state law.

UFC announced in 2021 that they would no longer be punishing fighters over positive marijuana tests.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals recently formed a partnership with a cannabis brand to promote education about the potential therapeutic benefits of CBD—the second Major League Baseball (MLB) team to do so after the Chicago Cubs.

MLB itself announced its league-wide partnership with a popular CBD brand last year. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, one of the most recognizable hemp-derived CBD companies in the country, signed the deal with league to become the “Official CBD of MLB.”

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Image element courtesy of Marco Verch.

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