The non-football buzz around Super Bowl XLVIII was not so much about the halftime show as it was about coming up with the funniest weed-inspired name for the matchup featuring teams from states that have legalized recreational marijuana, but the game spurred more than just jokes—a growing number of voices are now calling for the NFL to lift its weed ban.
Under the current NFL collective bargaining agreement, players are prohibited from using, possessing or distributing marijuana for any reason. Even though NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made it clear during his Jan. 31 State of the League Address that he is not considering a policy change, he should consider allowing league medics to prescribe players marijuana for football-related injuries.
Goodell said during the address that until weed is nationally legalized, the NFL will continue to enforce its ban, a move he has every right to make. The drug is still illegal recreationally in 48 states, and decriminalizing the drug for players would do little to offset the legal consequences of smoking, possessing or distributing weed. According to a database compiled by the San Diego Union-Tribune, seven NFL players were arrested or ticketed in 2013 for marijuana-related charges, including former Chicago Bear J’Marcus Webb. Notwithstanding the various legalization laws, the NFL has a right to limit its players’ recreational use of the drug.
The league also has a right to ban the use of medical marijuana by its players, but the case for allowing league doctors to prescribe medical weed is much stronger than that of a pot free-for-all. Allowing league doctors to prescribe the drug in states where it is legal could help offset some of the negative press the NFL has attracted recently for its injury records.
Professional football players are especially prone to concussions, which could lead to permanent brain damage and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease often found in athletes with a history of brain trauma, according to the Sports Legacy Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit that studies brain trauma in athletes.
Because of the aggressive physical nature of the sport, players can also experience chronic pain from repeated contact. An August 2013 study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex found that the activation of the endocannabinoid system in the brain, which marijuana triggers, could help reduce the effects of traumatic brain injuries. Research addressing the effects of weed on brain injuries is still relatively premature, but the drug’s effects on other injuries that plague football players, such as chronic pain, is well-documented.
Current pain medication often prescribed by doctors such as Vicodin and Oxycontin are more dangerous than weed and have serious side effects. They also have a high risk of addiction and abuse, unlike marijuana. As long as weed is legal, it is a safer and more beneficial drug than current pain medications, making it all the more appealing to the NFL.
Although Goodell is steadfast about maintaining the current policy, he has shown signs of openness to medical marijuana in the league. He said at a Jan. 23 event promoting “head health” that if doctors could demonstrate that medical marijuana could improve concussion treatment, he would consider amending the rule. It looks like that time is near.
Those in favor of a full turnaround on NFL marijuana rules may be disappointed. The league does not seem to want to give its players an all-out pass to smoke as they please, which is reasonable considering marijuana may negatively impact athletic performance by slowing reflexes, impairing hand-eye coordination and making cardiovascular exercise more difficult. However, if the drug can help players stave off harmful and sometimes life-threatening football-related injuries, the league should be more willing to consider an exception to its rule.