NFL Open to Studying Medical Marijuana Use for Pain Management

NFL Players Association is currently conducting its own study on use of pot as tool for players in pain

NFL reached out to NFL Players Association, which is currently conducting its own study on medical marijuana use, about possible collaboration. Credit: Ben Liebenberg/AP

The NFL wrote a letter to the NFL Players Association recently, offering to team up to study the potential use of marijuana as a pain management tool, people familiar with the situation told The Washington Post.

The move marks a possibly significant change in the NFL's attitude toward marijuana; the league previously instated strict near-zero tolerance policies that punished players caught with traces of marijuana in their systems. (In 2014, the league and the union agreed to modify the drug policy, allowing for 35 nanograms of THC – tetrahydrocannabinol – per milliliter of urine or blood, as opposed to the previous 15 nanograms.)

NFL players who tested positive for marijuana faced severe punishments, including suspensions.

According to one source, the NFL reached out to the union partly in response to the NFLPA's revelation late last year that it is conducting an independent study of marijuana as a pain management tool, and partly in response to DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA's executive director's January announcement that the union is preparing to deliver a proposal to the league about taking a more lenient stance on marijuana use.

In its recent letter, the NFL pointed to several areas of research that it believes the union and the league could research together, related to both acute and chronic conditions.

"We look forward to working with the Players Association on all issues involving the health and safety of our players," Joe Lockhard, the NFL's executive vice president of communications, told the Washington Post.

The NFLPA has thus far not replied to the NFL's proposal, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.

In January, Smith told the Post that he thought it was important that the league be more nuanced in its understanding of marijuana use by NFL players.

"I do think that issues of addressing it more in a treatment and less punitive measure is appropriate," Smith said at the time. "I think it's important to look at whether there are addiction issues. And I think it's important to not simply assume recreation is the reason it's being used."

"How do you make sure that you address any potential addiction issue? Because I've read the literature on both sides," he continued. "How do you deal with the fact that some people are using it purely recreationally and pivoting it to … people who are using it medicinally either as a pain eradicator or a stress-coping mechanism? So what we've decided to do is, to the best we can, look at it as related but nonetheless separate issues. Do I expect in the near future we are going to be presenting something to our board on the first issue? Yes."

In April, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said marijuana has an "addictive nature" and may not "be healthy for the players long-term"; he refused to remove it from the league's list of banned substances.