Derrick Morgan’s educational process started with headlines and movies. The Titans’ seventh-year linebacker had seen the reports about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). He had read the study that found the disease in the brains of 87 out of 91 deceased NFL players. He had seen the movie “Concussion” and, of course, he had heard the stories of former players dealing with lingering effects from football injuries.
But Morgan’s research also included the 2013 CNN documentary “Weed” about then-5-year-old Charlotte Figi, whose family turned to cannabis as a last-ditch effort to significantly reduce her epileptic seizures. If cannabis is working for these children, Morgan thought, it can’t be overlooked.
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So when offensive tackle Eugene Monroe in March became the first active NFL player to push for research of cannabidiol (CBD), a compound in cannabis that is found to reduce inflammation and neuropathic pain without getting users high, Morgan took notice.
On Thursday, Morgan told Yahoo!’s Katie Couric that he’s joining Monroe to become the second active player on “When the Bright Lights Fade” campaign, an initiative that started in Colorado to raise funds and awareness for CBD research for NFL players.
“After researching, finding out more and more about it, I realized this is something guys should know about,” Morgan said. “You don’t have to take it, but you should at least know about it if it’s going to help you protect your brain and protect your body.”
GAME OF PAIN: Why NFL players are pushing for CBD research
The players, which include former Broncos Jake Plummer and Nate Jackson, and the Colorado companies have teamed with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University to collect data on current and former NFL players’ CBD use and injury histories. The initial studies, funded primarily by Monroe, will lay the foundation for broader clinical trials on CBD and its potential effectiveness in treating physical injuries and even symptoms of CTE.
The end game: To prompt the NFL and union to altering its policy so active players can take CBD, a potentially safer alternative to the habit-forming opioids that are often prescribed by team physicians.
The NFL’s substance-abuse policy penalizes players for testing positive for more than 35 ng/ml of urine of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in cannabis. Unlike marijuana, hemp has only trace levels of THC. It’s believed that players could not consume enough of the high-CDB hemp extract to test hot, but it’s still a risk — one many are not willing to take.
While the NFL has, so far, not been moved enough to alter its rules, the Bright Lights campaign hasn’t gone unnoticed. Jeff Miller, the league’s executive vice president of player health and safety, and Russell Lonser, a neurological surgeon and a member of the league’s head, neck and spine committee, had a conference call with Monroe, Plummer and the studies’ lead researchers in early June. To the campaign’s leaders, the call was an encouraging first step toward the league becoming amenable to change.
But significant barriers remain, perhaps none larger than CBD’s association to marijuana, a schedule 1 drug that, while legal for medicinal purposes in 25 states plus the District of Columbia, is still federally illegal to buy or sell. (The Drug Enforcement Administration could reschedule marijuana this summer, which would partially legalize it and possibly make it available by prescription.)
“I think it’s a lack of education. The stigma overrides everything,” said Morgan, a father of two and an MBA candidate at the University of Miami. “(The NFL has) to protect the shield, as they always say. But until you educate yourself, you can’t just be ignorant of it.”
Last week when the Ravens released Monroe, the team’s website insinuated his advocacy for medical marijuana and CBD played a role in the decision. Coach John Harbaugh vehemently denied the move was about anything but football. To be sure, Monroe released a statement that day reaffirming his commitment to cannabis advocacy.
“Despite the current uncertainties, one thing is for sure: whatever happens in terms of my professional football career, I will never stop pushing for the League to accept medical cannabis as a viable option for pain management,” Monroe said via Twitter. “I will do everything I can to ensure the generations of NFL players after me won’t have to resort to harmful and addictive opioids as their only option for pain management.”
Morgan, like Monroe, says he has never taken CBD because of the league’s policy.
And Morgan, like Monroe, isn’t worried about facing pushback from coaches, league officials, even teammates in joining the campaign.
“All I’m asking for is research,” Morgan said. “I’m not asking to let guys smoke weed and get high. I’m not asking for that. I’m just asking for the NFL and the NFLPA to take a look at the research.
“Everybody has to go through a process. I went through my own process. I wasn’t ready to speak out as soon as I ran into this. I went through a whole education process myself before I was comfortable coming out and talking about it. So I think every guy is going to be different. If everybody doesn’t support it, that’s OK. But I think that to be a responsible human being in looking out for your own health that you should definitely look into it, then make your decision based off that. I think once more guys see the research that’s backing this up, they’ll be more of an advocate for it.”