Pot for Pain in Pro Sports? The Debate Rages On

By Abram Erickson

Pain is a part of everyday life for most professional athletes. Whether it stems from a recent injury in practice or competition or is a lingering pain from weeks, months, or years past, the ability to deal with this pain is often a defining factor for the athlete.

As years have passed and medical knowledge has grown, methods for managing pain have largely improved, but the physical demands of professional sports still see athletes looking for any way to lessen their pain.

This is the reason many athletes are now arguing for professional sports leagues to allow the use of marijuana, and cease testing and punishing players for its use.

Outside of sports, public perceptions of marijuana use seem to be shifting. Following the 2018 midterm elections, 33 states now allow medical marijuana use, while 10 states allow the use of marijuana recreationally.

Despite this recent trend, some experts believe medical marijuana holds no value in managing pain for athletes, and that its legalization in athletics could have serious consequences.

Right now, all four major American sports leagues include marijuana on the list of drugs they test players for, but the punishment they level out for those that test positive varies between the leagues. However, this all may stand to change in the near future. Due to the current buzz surrounding this issue, and the strong opinions on both sides, professional sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL will soon be forced to take a stand with their policy on marijuana.

Is Marijuana a Safe Alternative to Painkillers?

As previously mentioned, the majority of the support for marijuana in sports comes from players themselves. Countless retired players, and even some current ones, have stepped forward and admitted that they have used marijuana to ease their chronic pain. Most of their support comes from the fact that they believe marijuana can address the addiction problems that many former athletes face, often caused by prescription painkillers, especially opioids.

In an interview with ESPN, former star football player Calvin Johnson spoke of the prevalence of painkillers in the NFL, saying, “If you were hurting, then you could get ’em, you know. It was nothing. I mean, if you needed Vicodin, call out, ‘My ankle hurt,’ you know. So if you were dependent on ’em, they were readily available.”

This is where players see the problem they believe marijuana could fix. According to a 2011 study by Washington University, 52 percent of retired NFL players used painkillers during their careers, and more than 70 percent of those players abused those drugs.

“You’ve got all these drugs that you put in yourself just to play—they were giving me those things readily, so it was easy for me to start smoking and receiving the benefits of marijuana as a viable option [as] opposed to the prescription drugs,” says Bo Scaife, a former NFL player, whose feelings on marijuana reflect that of many players.

The main problem with the testimony of athletes on the subject of marijuana is that it is strictly anecdotal. While many have spoken of their positive experience with marijuana use, in the scientific community, the jury is still out on whether or not marijuana can help ease chronic pain. To make matters worse, marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug in the United States, meaning it has a high amount of restrictions on the ways in which it can be studied.

One group that does aim to continue to study and push for marijuana’s health benefits is the Drug Policy Alliance. In a May 2018 release, the DPA cited a literature review of 38 studies evaluating medical marijuana’s efficacy for treating pain, where it found that “71 percent concluded that cannabinoids had empirically demonstrable and statistically significant pain relieving effects, whereas 29 percent did not.”

While the testimonies of these athletes and the evidence presented by the DPA are compelling, there are many that still believe marijuana use should be kept out of sports.

Marijuana Use Harmful to Youth and Health

One of the main voices in opposition to marijuana use both in sports and in general is Kevin Sabet. Sabet is the former Senior Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which he served as from 2009-2011 during the Obama Administration. Currently, he is the co-founder of the nonprofit group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and an assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida.

In an interview with LifeZette, Dr. Sabet shared his strong opinions on marijuana use in sports. “Adults and adult players talking about their marijuana smoking and promoting it as medical is incredibly irresponsible given that these guys are role models for young people,” he said.

Not only does he believe that athletes endorsing marijuana could be harmful to impressionable youth, but he also sees the drug itself as harmful to those that use it. “Also, we don’t smoke any ‘medicine.’ So the science isn’t there about smoking marijuana and how it ‘helps’ people with injuries. If anything, the science is very clear that because THC has grown in potency so much—the active ingredient in marijuana that gets you high—it actually damages the brain in many ways and some long-lasting ways,” said Sabet, in the same interview.

Along those same lines, a 2014 study done in collaboration between Northwestern Medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, found that casual marijuana use was linked to brain abnormalities. Young adults who used marijuana only recreationally showed significant abnormalities in two key brain regions that are important in emotion and motivation, the study found.

“This study raises a strong challenge to the idea that casual marijuana use isn’t associated with bad consequences,” said corresponding and co-senior study author Hans Breiter, M.D. “Some of these people only used marijuana to get high once or twice a week,” Breiter said. “People think a little recreational use shouldn’t cause a problem, if someone is doing OK with work or school. Our data directly says this is not the case.”

According to this study and the opinions of Sabet, although players may find personal relief through using marijuana, they may also be sacrificing other aspects of their health for pain relief that is unsubstantiated by scientific evidence.

Where To Go From Here

It is evident that the issue of marijuana use in sports is complex, filled with many different opinions, and is not one that will be solved by a single easy answer. Where there is agreement on this subject, though, is on the need for more research into the benefits and risks of marijuana use.

Leaders of all four major leagues have insisted on the need for continued research in the area of marijuana as a pain reliever. They want to be sure to form their policies around scientific evidence rather than solely on testimonies by players.

Both sides of the debate are pushing for research as well, albeit for different reasons. Former players see research as an opportunity to provide scientific backing for the pain relief they say they experience with marijuana. Others, like Sabet, believe increased research will uncover more dangerous effects of marijuana use.

None of the leagues are yet to change their policies on marijuana, but amid shifting perceptions and pressure from both sides, they will likely be forced to take a strong stance on the issue sometime in the near future.

Unfortunately, finding the best ways to relieve pain in professional sports likely lies somewhere in the future as well.


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