In 2014, the NFL and its players union agreed to alter its drug policies, raising the allowed limit of THC, the compound in marijuana that gets users high. Pictured: New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones sacks Tennessee Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger in the second half of an NFL game on Dec. 20, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (Charles Krupa, The Associated Press)

How the NFL marijuana debate could start changing

The conversation started like most others I’ve had in the last year.

“Hello. I’m Nicki Jhabvala. I’m a reporter for The Denver Post and I’m writing about cannabis and the NFL.

“Can we talk?”

I reached out to Eugene Monroe in March while researching and reporting a series on pain management in the NFL. I knew about his involvement in a local campaign for cannabidiol (CBD) research and awareness. I knew he was an active player (at the time), so his voice carried more weight.

I knew he was risking more than he was receiving in standing up for the cause.

Monroe, who recently announced his retirement from the NFL and penned his first column for The Cannabist, has become a leader in the sports-cannabis movement. He’s risked endorsements, his job, possibly even relationships along the way, to urge the league and the NFL Players Association to take it seriously with him and give players a safer alternative for treating their pain.

But in doing so he, as well as Jake Plummer and others associated with cannabis campaigns, have taken an ax to the stigma attached to athletes and cannabis use, which might be more significant than the money and science devoted to early studies.

League policies can be changed — quickly, even. In 2014, the NFL and its players union agreed to alter its drug policies, raising the allowed limit of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound in marijuana that gets users high, to 35 nanograms per milliliters of urine, up from 15 ng/ml.

But the most basic premise of the game, as well as other contact sports, is decades in the making and will take years of undoing. The big hits and tough-guy mentality still is celebrated, often by the same people who say they’re concerned about concussions and brain injuries.

The voices of Monroe and Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan, the actions of the many players who retired in the primes of their careers in the past year alone, the call for research instead of demands for immediate change are beginning to change the culture. The ridicule saved for players who had long ago turned to marijuana for relief (see: Ricky Williams) is taking on a new tone. The social media videos of players taking bong hits are still criticized, but some are followed with the basic questioning of, “So what?”

A piece by Avalanche forward Gabe Landeskog in The Players’ Tribune said it best.

“We talk a lot about concussion prevention and protocols — and rightfully so,” Landeskog wrote. “The danger we don’t always talk about, however, is the incredible pressure you feel to rush back after you’ve already been diagnosed with a concussion.”

Leagues can change their policies. The NFL and NFLPA can agree to eliminate testing for marijuana altogether, or simply raise the THC limit further so players can consume CBD without worry (Hemp-based CBD oil doesn’t get users high, but contains trace levels of THC.) They can — if they want to. But rules alone won’t spark change. It’s conversations like the ones Monroe and Landeskog and Plummer are having that will have the greatest impact.

This article was first published on