Earlier this year, the NFL formed a committee to address pain management. While the NFL isn’t always known for its willingness or ability to adapt to change, their initiatives around mental health and pain management (and the potential implications on the NFL marijuana policy) are worth a closer look.
What Is The Current NFL Marijuana Policy?
The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement allows for players to be tested for marijuana—and disciplined if they test positive. The testing was agreed to by both owners and players, though revisions have been made in the last eight years.
More recently, the threshold for testing positive was raised to 35 nanograms of THC per milliliter (raised from 15 nanograms). Even after the increase, the NFL’s rules regarding marijuana testing remain significantly lower than other organizations. Major League Baseball uses a threshold of 50 nanograms. And the World Anti-Doping Agency uses a threshold of 150 nanograms—three times the NFL cutoff!
Players who haven’t tested positive for marijuana in the past are only tested once per year. The test can occur anytime from April 20 (yup, they start testing on 4/20) to August 9.
The First Steps Toward Change
The NFL and NFLPA don’t agree on much. But in May of 2019, the organization and the players association came to terms on two important points:
- Mandating a mental health practitioner for each team
- Forming a joint committee to assess alternatives to the current use of painkillers for pain management
While the press release regarding these initiatives never mentioned marijuana or cannabis, it is reasonable to assume medical marijuana will be one of the “alternatives” considered. And for good reason.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states. Public and political support for legalization is at an all-time high. New studies continue to point to the medical applications of cannabis—including pain management and mental health benefits—and many current and former players live in states with legal medical marijuana.
Speaking of players, several of the more outspoken current and former players have raised their voices in favor of medical marijuana (though current players are understandably hesitant to say too much). And some high profile NFL stars are now in the cannabis business.
Eugene Monroe made history as the first-ever NFL player to publicly declare his cannabis use, resulting in the Ravens terminating his contract. He remains committed to changing the NFL’s no-tolerance policy for cannabis, including writing for The Cannabist, serving on the Board of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and HealthyUNow, and consults with Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries.
Tiki Barber (RB, NYG) is the co-founder of Grove Group Management, a Vancouver-based investment firm focusing on North American cannabis start-ups.
Joe Montana invested $4.1 million in Herb, a cannabis-centric news and entertainment outlet. More recently, his venture capital firm invested $75 million in cannabis company Caliva.
Ricky Williams was forced out of the NFL after testing positive for cannabis in 2004 and 2005. Williams has since become a trained herbalist and healer, and founded Real Wellness, a line of cannabis products available in Southern California.
What Will It Take for the NFL to Change Its Stance on Marijuana?
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said in the past that they’ll “follow the science.” But he doesn’t say anything about being first in line. And science alone won’t lead the NFL to any major policy changes.
That’s because the NFL tends to play it slow. They changed their stance on sports betting only after the NHL and NBA did so. They made the treatment and monitoring of concussions a high priority only after strong pressure from Congress.
While a change in the league’s marijuana policy is a priority for the NFLPA, it is unlikely to be a top priority. There are simply too many changes that need to be made for cannabis to be at the top of the list. And without that added pressure from the NFLPA, the NFL may continue to take a wait-and-see approach.
Which is not only a shame, but potentially dangerous. It’s no surprise that NFL players deal with severe pain during the season (and the offseason). Without access to alternative treatments, the use of opioids has steadily climbed, with Detroit Lion Mike James suggesting the rate of opioid use among NFL players is four times higher than the national average.
If another league (NBA, NHL, MLB) were to allow medical marijuana use—or if medical cannabis was legalized at a federal level—it could be the catalyst that sparked a change in NFL policy. But short of those big-play actions, any shift in the NFL’s marijuana policy is more likely to resemble a slow, clock-killing drive that makes you want to change the channel.