(Rob Carr, Getty Images file)

NFL marijuana policy in spotlight before Super Bowl as former players push opioid alternative

A group of former National Football League players is using the Super Bowl to push for a new policy on marijuana, saying the substance should be more widely available as an alternative to opioid painkillers.

Former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon said pot has helped him numb lingering pain from injuries sustained during 15 seasons in the league. And it’s done so, he said, without the side effects he experienced from the opioid Percocet.

“This is something that has got to get into the mainstream,” he said this week at Cannabis in Professional Sports, a public forum in Houston, days before the city hosts the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.

Greater acceptance by the NFL of the federally banned substance would mark a big step in support of legal pot, said Sue Sisley, an Arizona psychiatrist who helped organize the event. Legal weed has grown into a $6.7 billion industry as eight states and the District of Columbia allow recreational consumption. More than half of states permit medical use.

“If we can persuade the wealthiest most powerful organization in the country, the NFL, to reevaluate their policy, we all know that is going to have a giant ripple effect,” said Sisley, who sits on the board of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, which advocates for marijuana legalization.

The NFL Players Association is drafting a proposal to change how the NFL handles marijuana use, union spokesman George Atallah said Friday. It would need to be approved by union representatives and then presented to the league for collective bargaining, he said.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters this week that while the current labor agreement has worked well for players and the teams, the league “would love to engage” the union on drug policy. NFL players who test positive for marijuana can be fined or suspended.

Opioid deaths hit a record in 2015 and have killed half a million Americans since 2000 as prescriptions surged, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is substantial evidence that cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain, the National Academy of Sciences said in a report last month.

Kyle Turley, who played offensive tackle for the New Orleans Saints and two other teams during nine seasons in the NFL, was among seven former players this week to publicly recount their struggles with pain killers. Turley said he endured so much head trauma that he now has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease. Vicodin and other pain pills combined with his CTE made Turley anxious, prone to rage, sometimes suicidal, he said.

“Cannabis gave me my life back,” said Turley. “It saved my life, it saved my family, and I believe it will save football.”