Eugene Monroe on NFL, CTE and How Weed Changed His Life

Former Ravens tackle talks to Rolling Stone about the role marijuana has played in managing the pain he's still dealing with from his career in the NFL

"I don't take any pharmaceutical drugs," says Eugene Monroe. "I've been managing my pain with marijuana." Credit: Rob Carr/Getty

Eugene Monroe announced his retirement from the NFL on July 21st, 2016, about one month after his release from the Baltimore Ravens.

Like many players who have recently made the decision to retire at an early age, Monroe cited concerns over his long-term health as the primary reason for leaving the game he loves at only 29 years old. While he was a durable player before he arrived in Baltimore, a number of injuries forced him to miss a total of 20 regular season games over his three seasons with the Ravens. To this day, he still claims to be feeling the effects of one particular concussion he suffered in Week One of the 2015 season.

As the first active NFL player to advocate for medical marijuana, Monroe was vocal about his retirement plans as soon as the Ravens released him: "Whatever happens in terms of my professional football career, I will never stop pushing for the League to accept medical cannabis as a viable option for pain management," he said in a statement. "I will do everything I can to ensure the generations of NFL players after me won't have to resort to harmful and addictive opioids as their only option for pain management."

Rolling Stone recently spoke to Monroe about the toll competing in the NFL has taken on his body and the role marijuana has played in his pain management.

You've been retired for just over a year now. How are you feeling? Have you had any long-term effects from playing in the NFL?
After a year of not playing, I'm still doing all of the same things that I needed to in terms of rehab exercises and therapy, even though I'm not playing. The injuries that I have had are still certainly things that I continue to manage daily. You ask how I feel – I'm still hurting. That's not to say I'm complaining. However, on a daily basis, I have to spend a lot of time just doing things to take care of myself.

Is that general physiotherapy?
I retired and decided that I wanted to drop all of the weight. I wasn't playing ball anymore, so I didn't need to carry all the excess weight that I did as an offensive lineman. I changed my diet, eating borderline vegan. In efforts to preserve my knees, I started cycling because there's less impact. So I do a lot of cycling for exercise and a ton of resistance band-based workouts, light weight workouts, just stuff to stay strong but keeping in mind that I'm dealing with some injuries so I'm not going overboard by any means.

In fact, I might need to address some of my injuries surgically as well, some of the same injuries that I've had that I was able to play through but over time they are just becoming a bigger issue. Every time you get hurt when you play, you don't miss competition. You can have an injury and fight through it. Ultimately, I'm finding that although I played through tons of injuries, even the ones that might have felt like they were okay are not, so I'm needing to address them.

Despite those injuries, I believe you said you were 100 percent pharmaceutical free. Is that correct?
Absolutely. I don't take any pharmaceutical drugs. I've been managing my pain with marijuana. I've been very open about that. It's been a much better experience. I don't feel like I'm reliant on it. When I do need relief, I can get it almost immediately. I don't experience any of the side effects that the pharmaceutical drugs put me through. The reason why I stopped taking those pills, particularly after my last shoulder surgery, was because I was having issues taking oxycodone. Not only the gastrointestinal issues I had from them, but they started to affect my mind a little bit too. Luckily I noticed that and stopped taking them. And since then, I haven't taken any pharmaceutical drugs.

A lot of NFL players have talked about the horror stories they've had with opioids. Keith McCants admitted to Vice that he took 183 pills a week and didn't know the effect those would have on his body at the time. In your case, how many pills were you taking a week on average when you were in the NFL whether you were dealing with an injury or not?
I did not have an abuse problem. I'm fortunate in that regard. But I did take those pills whenever the doctor prescribed them. And really, it was often because I dealt with a lot of injuries. I had some injuries that created some chronic issues. Whether they would flair up or I would tweak it in practice, they caused a great deal of inflammation first, so the team doctor would address that with prescribing anti-inflammatory drugs and as well as sometimes prescribing Vicodin or oxycodone to deal with the pain from those injuries. For various injuries, I did take opioids. Fortunately, I didn't deal with addiction or anything, but I did understand that it was a possibility.

You said it — there's guys who have said they've taken well over 100 pills a week. We do know that over time the strength of those drugs tends to wean away as you take them consistently. People tend to need higher and more potent doses of opioids for them to be effective.

How difficult was it for you after your career to transition off the painkillers? How long did that take you?
It was actually pretty difficult. I remember sitting in my chair, propped up, I had had surgery five days prior and I was taking oxycodone. My daughter approached me and I didn't recognize her. It was really my sort of realization that these pills are no good. I stopped taking them immediately and that's really where I picked up learning as much as I could about marijuana. I was laying around, suffering, taking over-the-counter pain medicine because I had stopped taking the opioids. I really just suffered through the recovery from that surgery. Fortunately, later that year, I retired and wasn't being tested anymore so I started consuming cannabis to deal with my pain.

You've said before that marijuana is such a loaded word and that people "bristle upon hearing it." What kind of marijuana products are you using to treat certain injuries or certain long-term effects you've had from the NFL?
We've come a long way in terms of how we're able to use cannabis. There are various forms. Most people are familiar with what's most common, and that is smoking marijuana. However, you really don't have to, and most athletes would probably tell you they'd prefer not to smoke anything, let alone marijuana. I tend to consume marijuana in different ways. I like topical forms of marijuana and the topicals can come in various combinations of creams or different compounds. An infusion of marijuana as pain relief and anti-inflammatory benefits to those products, so I like to rub those in some of my joints that have been injured.

I also like marijuana that has been infused in healthy fats like medium-chain triglycerides that are also helpful for your brain, like coconut oil. I'll consume some coconut oil that has been infused in some of my food. When you ingest cannabis through your stomach, when you eat it, a lot of people experience much stronger effects too. When you think about the different forms of cannabis and the different ways you can take it, it really has application much like many other medicine. If you need bad back relief, you can vaporize cannabis. It gets into your bloodstream almost immediately through your lungs and provides instant relief. If you've got severe pain, you can ingest an edible form of cannabis. Once it starts to activate, it breaks down and lasts over a sustained time, so now you have longer lasting relief.

Furthermore, all of these formulations are available in both CBD formulations, which are non-psychoactive that you can take without getting any high but still maintain those therapeutic benefits, but also high THC formulas that you might take at times where, for example, an athlete needs to get rest and there's a high THC formulation of an edible that he can take at night time before bed. That athlete no longer needs to take Ambien. He can take cannabis and promote sleep without any addictive side effect.

Not to say cannabis has no addictive nature, but we do know that the addictive potential is far less than many drugs out there. People overwhelmingly are turning to cannabis as an option.

Is there any way to introduce certain forms of that in the NFL? Is there a middle ground?
No. I don't believe there's a middle ground here. This is medicine, and although people are able to consume cannabis and enjoy it recreationally, the application we are talking about is its medical application. We don't see the NFL trying to control players' alcohol consumption or tobacco consumption. In fact, the NFL advertises those things. Cannabis is less damaging, less dangerous, less addictive than both of those. However, we see those being celebrated. The NFL is even expanding its hard liquor advertisement.

I believe that we need to move towards a place where we can talk about marijuana openly. Where we're not concerned with the image of marijuana. What we're concerned most importantly with is a player's long-term health and wellness.

One of the biggest talking points surrounding that has been Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study recently showing that 110 of 111 NFL brains tested were found to have CTE. Where do you see this going? Is this basically a bubble that is eventually going to pop?
I'll say it pretty clearly that the NFL is terrified of this issue. They have not been consistent on their positioning in the matter. [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell has said that the game is safe, that the studies are inconclusive. He's even noted studies that he believes correlate with the safety of the game, however that's not the case. Then the NFL comes out and says that they're interested in studying marijuana to see if it does have medical application and even invited the NFLPA to be a part of that conversation.

In terms of what's in store, I'm not sure. You look at the fact that our government has a patent on marijuana and says that they've found that it can be anti-inflammatory and it can also protect the brain, that it can be neuroprotective. Those are signs that point towards more research.

If the NFL is truly committed to research in this space, they can look no further than the U.S. government for the initial direction of that research. I hope that we move to a place where we understand CTE better. You know, the game is in trouble as I see it. Studies show that almost everyone who plays the game will in fact develop some level of brain disease. If we can put some research dollars behind this to find exactly what's causing this and determine whether or not it is actually preventable. Many physicians believe that it is not, that inherently with the way the game is played you cannot prevent contact to the head.

They are even changing coaching techniques starting at the youth level. It's been found that programs like "Heads Up Football" don't seem to make a huge impact on injuries, but a reduction in time on the field does seem to reduce injury. We know that this game is dangerous although the NFL denies it. We know that it at least creates the potential for many players to develop brain disease. We're seeing it over and over, and the study was jarring. Again, the NFL has shied away from this issue, but hopefully this is a turning point.

You've talked about how you suffered numerous concussions throughout your career and that you still feel the effects of those. How has marijuana helped in your recovery with that?
All of the information regarding CTE and head issues, the science isn't really advanced. I do still deal with a lot of issues. I still feel like I'm recovering from the concussion even though the team cleared me to come back on the field and play. I shouldn't be still experiencing headaches on a daily basis and sometimes they're debilitating. Light sensitivity as well, and a few other issues. I'm actively in a period where I'm seeing physicians and trying to get a handle on the issues that I'm dealing with that are definitely not normal and definitely are results of the concussions I suffered.

Do you use marijuana daily to treat those symptoms?
In terms of treating any head issue, I can't say that my marijuana use is specifically to treat head issues because the data is so scattered. It does tend to sometimes alleviate a headache. It is not perfect in that regard. I'm trying to hone down on what formulations of cannabis might be good for my particular issues. I have focused on treating my pain and inflammation with cannabis. It tends to be very effective for that. Whether or not it's making a real impact on my head issues, I'm not certain.

What does a day look like for you then when you do use marijuana versus when you don't?
For one, it reduces pain.

I talk about pain a lot. It's not because I'm complaining at all. It's because it's real and it's something athletes deal with. However, we're conditioned to not talk about it, right? Who wants to hear about a warrior's pain? Marijuana tends to alleviate the pain that I deal with. Even while I played, you can speak to any football player and they'll tell you waking up in the morning is probably one of the worst parts of your day. Your body is extremely stiff, it's achy. And if I consume marijuana in the morning, it tends to take away some of that achiness so I feel better. I'm motivated now to get to into my workout and move my body, which hurts — working out certainly can create some pain too — but there is also therapeutic release in exercise.

Consuming cannabis helps relieve pain, so I'm able to get on my bike and cycle and knock off some of the weight that I've gained for being an offensive lineman. I tend to be strategic about my cannabis use. I don't want to abuse it. I want to use it as needed, and I've been figuring out how to do that over time.

Have you experienced anything negative through consuming cannabis in that way?
I haven't had any negative sort of side effects. In fact, I actually can't think of many negative side effects I've heard from other people outside of maybe paranoia after consuming cannabis. Again, it's been extremely effective for me. I'd even say superior to any of the pharmaceuticals I've been prescribed.

What's the next step in terms of figuring this out with the NFL?
The Collective Bargaining Agreement certainly is a time where this item can be negotiated. Contracts can be altered and there's no reason why this policy couldn't be changed much like any other policy that the NFL has been changed.

This will improve the game. This will make players healthy. This will reduce the possibilities of athletes becoming addicted to hardcore drugs that these doctors are prescribing. I think the NFL can be a leader in research on this as well.

Do you think it will take anything in particular for them to take that next big step?
I'm not sure. They haven't been clear on their positioning on this either way, so I don't know. Once we sit at the table with them, we'll have an understanding of their resistance and maybe we can move past it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.