Former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer consumes nonpsychoactive cannabidiol to help alleviate his football-related pain. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

NFLPA looks to involve players’ families in push for marijuana policy change

The NFL Players’ Association proposal to alter the league’s substance-abuse policy and take a more “lenient” approach to marijuana will seek involvement from players’ families, too.

Union executive George Atallah said in an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio that the NFLPA believes players are using marijuana to self-medicate. To address why and how, and to better examine players’ overall health, requires involving their families, he said.

“We believe that is the result of players trying to deal with managing pain on their own as opposed to going through a medical professional,” Atallah told hosts Alex Marvez and Geoff Schwartz. “If that’s the case, we need to really take a hard look at what’s causing them to self-medicate, how we can take better care of players in the locker room and how we can incorporate frankly all of the families of players into this solution.

“The disciplinary aspect of it is one thing. But what we’re really trying to focus on is helping players get better without having to resort to things like Toradol and heavy opioids.”

For much of the last year and a half or so, favor appeared to reside with the players in their fight for change to the league’s stand on marijuana. The number of states that legalized medical marijuana ballooned to 29, plus Washington, D.C, and the anecdotal evidence of cannabis’ health benefits have increased, especially as more NFL players speak out about their positive experiences in using it to treat their football-related pain.

The national acceptance of marijuana has undeniably grown. But the science still lags and the federal government’s view of marijuana has taken a drastic shift in recent months.

The minimal research (due in large part to federal restrictions), the U.S. Department of Justice’s vow to more strictly enforce federal laws, and a recent order by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to roll back a less lenient policy in handling drug crimes has given the NFL much more power and leverage in the debate of marijuana use.

“The dynamics for marijuana have changed with Sessions as the attorney general, and leagues’ willingness to accept marijuana is likely impacted as well,” said Michael McCann, a legal analyst and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

It’s a catch-22, but the federal law and the new dynamics of federal policy-makers has given the NFL multiple outs in opting to not change its current substance-abuse policy.

Marijuana is classified as Schedule I drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, making it federally illegal. Doctors cannot prescribe it and researchers have limited access to the plant to conduct studies.

Earlier this year the NFLPA said it developed a pain management committee to address the whole-body issues of players, and the potential benefits of marijuana are among its many subjects.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league would consider changes to policy on marijuana if science supported it, but his most recent comments seemed to reflect the league’s persistent view of marijuana, “You’re ingesting smoke, so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say,” he said while on ESPN Radio. “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.”

What is known, based on a January 2017 report that reviewed 10,000 studies since 1999: that cannabis is effective in treating chronic pain in adults.

What can be deduced but still lacks firm, conclusive evidence: that cannabinoids provide better outcomes from a traumatic brain injury, that they can improve the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, that they can improve anxiety and symptoms associated with dementia, and that they can decrease the production of inflammatory cytokines.

The latter list has been the focus of so many current and former NFL players. But it may still not be enough to sway the NFL.

During the Sport Lawyers Association’s annual conference in Denver last month, NFL senior vice president of labor policy and legal affairs Adolpho Birch said the general perception of marijuana is far ahead of the science and federal law. But Birch also noted the Department of Justice’s stance on enforcing drug laws and the changing dynamic with the Drumpf administration — another indication of the NFL’s possible hesitance in considering change.

“(The league and players) argued over neutral arbitration and how to handle nonanalytical positives and HGH, and that was all negotiated between 2011 and 2014 regardless of the rest of the CBA,” said Christopher Deubert, a senior law and ethics associate at Harvard who has led multiple league-funded studies on its health practices. “It’s entirely reasonable that they could negotiate a change in marijuana without having to wait for the next CBA.

“That said, considering where the science is, the NFLPA is just now trying to do research on it. It’s very challenging to do research on marijuana because it’s Schedule I, so I wouldn’t imagine that there’s something that could be tangibly presented to the NFL that would force a change prior to the next CBA. It’s seems more likely, based on the trajectory, that it wrapped up in the next negotiation, if at all.”

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