Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer takes a dose of Charlotte's Web hemp extract at the East Boulder Community Center to play handball on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

NFL players union considers cannabis via pain management committee

In early January, former quarterback Jake Plummer sat side by side with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at Sports Authority Field in Denver to watch the Broncos defeat the Steelers in a divisional playoff game. The meeting was informal, with the real talking points — the ones that would be raised in the months ahead — put aside.

But only temporarily.

Plummer and many other active and retired players were in the beginning stages of building a campaign and raising money and awareness for cannabidiol, a nonpsychoactive compound in cannabis that is believed to be a safer pain reliever for football players.

A year since its launch, the campaign and as well as others for cannabis allowance for NFL players, has gained steam. After Tuesday’s elections, marijuana is now legal for medical purposes in the states of 23 NFL teams.

But the NFL Players’ Association took notice long before. A few months ago it began to develop a pain management committee that will include active and former players as well as medical experts and researchers devoted to addressing chronic pain among players.

Assessing the potential of cannabis as an alternative pain reliever will be one aspect of the committee’s focus, but certainly not the only.

“The legalization, legislative track is not spurring any decision-making on our end related to how we’re approaching this issue,” said George Atallah, union’s assistant executive director of external affairs. “We have members who have told us that they are dealing with issues of chronic pain, not just during their careers, but post-careers, as well. We have much better injury data over the last couple of years since we moved to a new system, and that data has shown that while concussions have dominated the headlines, there are a lot of other issues that players deal with that we have to address.”

The union could not release the full list of members or many specifics of the committee’s plan or tasks, but it did announce two of its members: former Ravens offensive lineman Eugene Monroe and Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan. The pair, along with Plummer and other former players, have spearheaded the push for cannabis allowance in the NFL and have pressed the league and union to take a harder look at pain management among both former and current players.

“This isn’t complaining,” Monroe told The Denver Post earlier this year. “We know what we signed up for. But we do know that there are options to help us mitigate some of these problems. If you hurt your knee and you rehab and come back in season, you’re still dealing with that pain every single day. And you might be performing at a high level visibly, but the people watching the game don’t understand how you actually feel. When you talk to someone’s family members, if you talk to a player’s wife, I guarantee you, she’d be able to paint a vivid picture for the struggles that her husband goes through on a daily basis. I’m talking about out of season, too, because injuries don’t magically go away.”

Their pleas have been multi-pronged; while advocating for marijuana allowance, they have also spoken out about the dangers of opioid painkillers that are distributed by team trainers and physicians. Pills are more regulated in the NFL than they were in years past, but the exposure is a potential trigger for addiction when the nation is embroiled in an opioid epidemic.

“As this keeps going, more and more players, more and more locker rooms are talking about this stuff and wondering, ‘Why do I have to feel, in a state where (cannabis) is legal, like I’m doing something illegal? It’s just not right.’ I could understand if they were operating heavy machinery or if they were brain surgeons. But, people, they’re football players. They’re entertainers.”

The rapidly changing legal landscape reflect a growing acceptance of marijuana nationwide. The NFL and NFLPA operate by the rules of their collective bargaining agreement, which runs through the 2020 season. But the drug policies were amended in 2014 and could be altered again, before the agreement expires.

Players are tested in the offseason for tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, and face punishment if they test for higher than 35 nanograms of it per millileter of urine. There’s also the issue of marijuana still being illegal on a state level for nine NFL teams and a federally illegal substance; it is a Schedule I drug with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”

Atallah said, in the short term, the NFLPA’s committee will audit studies already available on marijuana and other issues tied to pain management and treatment. It will also turn to the many ongoing ones for data and information. Among them are the CBD studies through Colorado’s CW Hemp and its partnering nonprofit, Realm of Caring, as well a one with the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition to examining whole-plant cannabis in treating players.

But the potential of marijuana as alternative for players is only one concern for the union and it’s newly formed committee, essentially a sub-group of the Mackey-White Health and Safety Committee that was formed in 2009 to address head injuries and now meets quarterly to review player safety concerns. Atallah said the group will cast a wide net in assessing the complaints of players and their options in treating them.

“I think the committee is going to be focused first on identifying what the most common chronic pain issues are plaguing our members,” Atallah said. “Once we get to a point where we feel comfortable with that analysis then we can sort of, on a parallel track, look at any treatment options. The hope here over time is that, while marijuana, is stealing the headlines on this specific issue, we don’t know if there are other substances that can help. We don’t know if there are other treatments that can help. We’re approaching this with a really open mind and a broad look at the ailments that our players are facing on a daily basis.”

For Plummer and others who have pushed for greater awareness in not just cannabis allowance, but also general pain management and change in the NFL, the rise of a devoted committee holds promise.

“It’s a great step in the right direction,” he said. “It’s progressive, which, a lot of times in the NFL and what they do, they’re not progressive.”

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