Eben Britton, a former NFL offensive lineman and now staunch advocate for marijuana allowance in the league, had heard similar comments in the past but hoped the league and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, had changed its view on marijuana.
“You’re ingesting smoke, so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say,” Goodell said in an interview on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” radio show. “It does have addictive nature. There are a lot of compounds in marijuana that may not be healthy for the players long-term. All of those things have to be considered.”
Goodell said the league’s medical advisers have been studying the issue and “to date, they haven’t said this is a change we think you should make that’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our players.”
Britton, one of many retired players who have been outspoken about marijuana’s potential benefits in treating players’ pain and symptoms from head injuries, said Goodell’s comments are “dumb” and “a big mistake.”
“The fact that he portrays it in this light, as if has to be smoked, it feeds into the stigma of it rather than understanding that this can be used as a tincture, a capsule. It can be provided in many different forms,” Britton said.
“There’s a lot of positive movement, and that’s why it’s so ridiculous to see Roger Goodell’s statements. Like, you’re living in the Stone Age and it makes you look like you don’t (care) about the players. This is something that could really have a positive impact on the No. 1 issue you’re facing — the No. 1 and No. 2 issues: concussions and (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), and then this opioid epidemic. Stop saying these dumb things because then you have uneducated people reading things like that and saying, ‘Oh, the commissioner of the NFL says this thing is really bad.’ No.”
The NFL Players Association has vowed for months to propose a more lenient approach to the way the league handles marijuana use among players, but its suggested changes to the substance-abuse policy have yet to be presented to the league and the specifics remain unknown.
DeMaurice Smith, the union’s executive director, appeared on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” on Tuesday to address the topic and Goodell’s comments, and said: “We intend to present a proposal to the league that probably has more of a therapeutic approach to those who test positive for marijuana. The idea is simply to make sure that we understand whether a player is suffering from something other than just a desire to smoke marijuana. I think all of us would want to have a process where, if there was truly a problem, we’re treating the problem instead of just treating a symptom.”
Although Britton is not privy to the specifics of the proposal, he took the “therapeutic approach” to mean the union wants players to be granted access to medical marijuana through a therapeutic use exemption, just as he was allowed to obtain Adderall, a banned substance.
“I went through a team doctor and then I was referred to a team psychiatrist who put me through a litany of tests and basically said, ‘Yeah, this guy should be able to use Adderall for therapeutic purpose,’ ” said Britton, who has written extensively of his abuse of Adderall during his playing career. “I think, if anything, that’s a decent step in the right direction. I think even better than that, though, might be to take an approach like the NHL does.”
The NHL does not test for marijuana. NFL players are tested in the offseason and face disciplinary action for a positive test of more than 35 nanograms per milliliter of urine of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana.
Per the current substance-abuse policy, T.U.E.s may be granted by the Independent Administrator of the NFL Policy on Performance-Enhancing Substances and the Medical Adviser for the Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse. However, marijuana cannot be prescribed by a physician because it is federally illegal.
In the 29 states — plus Washington D.C. — that have adopted medical marijuana laws, doctors can issue a recommendation for cannabis to patients. But that leaves nine NFL teams that play their home games in states that have not legalized it for medical purposes. (The Redskins train in Virginia, where medical marijuana is illegal, but play their home games in Maryland, where it is legal.)
The union recently developed a pain management committee to study, among other things, the potential benefits of cannabis for players. Research is still relatively limited on both marijuana and cannabidiol (CBD) products derived from hemp that contain only trace amounts of THC. But anecdotal evidence has grown significantly over the last decade.
Many retired players — including Britton, former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer and former tackle Eugene Monroe — have preached cannabis’ pain-relieving qualities and believe it’s a safer alternative to the habit-forming painkillers team physicians often prescribe.
Britton is a founding member of Athletes For Care, a nonprofit organization formed to help players transition to retirement and offer support groups and awareness of addiction. The organization has teamed with the Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University to continue to raise awareness and push for research.
“I think today’s players are more and more cognizant that these long-term issues are going to be things that we have to deal with,” Britton said of pain and brain injuries from football. “We’ve chosen this life and it’s come with a ton of reward, but it comes with a really high price.
“You have to be taking proactive steps to take care of yourself before it’s too late, before you’ve slipped into the dark pastures of addiction. You’re trying to do the best you can to keep your body as healthy in the moment as possible so down the line you’re not getting hit with a ton of bricks with all these ailments that are creeping up on guys.”