Former Broncos tight end Nate Jackson was one of the first players to speak openly about marijuana's advantage over the standard treatment of pain pills or injections. Retired defensive end Marvin Washington recently did the same, explaining pot's benefits for head injuries to the media. Even Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has claimed to support the emerging research in a press conference earlier this year. It seems marijuana — that same drug the league severely condemns its players for recreationally using — might also have the potential to save their health.
While medical marijuana has yet to be tested extensively, there's growing evidence and support for Jackson and Washington's claims. According to experts, pot could in fact be the answer to two of the NFL's biggest medical grievances — chronic pain and brain injury. "All the studies point to very powerful, potentially exciting therapeutic possibilities," says Mark Ware, director of pain management at McGill University. "We may be opening a window and looking into something that has been happening for many years but has been completely out of sight."
At the University of California San Diego Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, Dr. Barth Wilsey and his colleagues have been conducting human lab experiments on the potential for THC — a compound in pot — to treat neuropathic pain for decades. NFL players struggle with this type of chronic pain, derived from hits and injuries, long after their careers end, often with a lifetime of medication. Wilsey looked specifically at low doses of THC. "There are five studies that were congruent in finding smoking cannabis alleviated neuropathic pain, or pain due to nerve injury," says Wilsey. "We haven't had the kind of funding for larger scale studies involving 8 to 12 weeks of therapy. But the groundwork is there." In fact, medical marijuana is most often prescribed for pain among everyday patients, including cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis patients to soothe their symptoms.
But Wilsey notes only 200 people total and 40 studies have looked at pot and chronic pain, making it hard to compile the sort of evidence considered "strong" by the FDA. One of the reasons for stunted research, says Mark Ware, is the lack of materials for human trials from the government (It's difficult to have funding approved for studying the perks of a Schedule 1 substance — the same classification as heroin) and a shortage of researchers willing to study a drug so controversial.
For that reason, there are even fewer human studies addressing the other big NFL problem — brain injury. The NFL reported 213 concussions in 2013, from practices and games combined. Concussions often lead to lasting head trauma like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects memory, cognition and behavior. And pot, for reasons scientists still only speculate about, has been shown to relieve and even reverse neurocognitive damage. The strongest evidence comes from animal studies, where rats are given head injuries similar to that seen in the NFL.
In 2000, researchers at Maryland's Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Regulation found that cannabidial (CBD) — another marijuana compound — had powerful protective effects against brain trauma, and was a more potent antioxidant than Vitamins C or E. Antioxidants have been shown to nurture brain health and relieve brain injury by preventing inflammation. And in 2007, University of Milan researchers found THC protected gerbil brains after a lab-induced stroke — damage that's similar to brain trauma seen in concussions, explains medical marijuana researcher Clint Werner. The most well-known study comes out of Israel's Tel Aviv University: In 2012, Dr. Yosef Sarne and colleagues found a low dose of THC had long-lasting neuroprotective effects for rats with brain injuries. The rats showed sharper strategic thinking in a maze when dosed with THC compared to those who weren't. Note that while FDA-approved pills like Marinol already contain synthetic marijuana compounds, researchers argue these aren't as potent or effective as the whole plant itself — with all of its compounds at work.
Despite the growing research, more studies must be done to make sure marijuana can be prescribed safely before "we start giving it out like holy water", says Wilsey. He's cautious to legalize marijuana so soon. "There's some wisdom in what the government is doing because marijuana is not harmless." Pregnant women and teenagers shouldn't take marijuana, as it harms the developing brain. And NFL athletes shouldn't flaunt casual marijuana use. "These people are looked up to by your nation's youth. If their role models want to use marijuana, they have to be done privately," Wilsey says. Ware adds it's important that people understand the studies showing pot's damage to teenage brains aren't looking at the same endpoints as studies for people in pain — the uses are different: rather than recreational, they're medicinal.
Al Olson, a former NBC news editor who now heads marijuana.com — says we're still headed in the right direction. Citing families that move from Jersey to Colorado to treat their child's epilepsy with marijuana, he says the NFL will eventually bow to public opinion. "When more and more of these stories come to light and the science becomes more available, we'll see a change, he says. Wilsey hopes these future changes will allow scientists to "lead the way" and demonstrate efficacy in even more conditions like traumatic brain injury (TBI), Alzheimer's and ALS. Now that some of the science is emerging, Olson adds, "you can't put the genie back in the bottle."