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Optimum Performance: Is the NFL’s policy on marijuana outdated?

In this Aug. 9, 2014, file photo, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon (12) runs with the ball in the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field in Detroit. A person familiar with Gordon’s situation says the suspended wide receiver wants to play in the Canadian Football League, but is prohibited from doing so. Under CFL rules, a player suspended by the NFL and under contract is not eligible to play in Canada. But if the Browns released Gordon, he would be able to play elsewhere. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski, File) (Rick Osentoski)

Is the NFL’s policy on Marijuana outdated in light of the fact that as of July, 35 states and the District of Columbia permit some form of medical marijuana usage, while 18 states have decriminalized it?

In a recent article on the New York Times editorial page – “The NFL’s Absurd Marijuana Policy – by former NFL player Nate Jackson, author of  “Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile,” Jackson said: “I medicated with marijuana for most of my career as a tight end.”

Jackson, who played from 2003 through 2008, opted to use marijuana during his playing days, because he considered it a better pain management choice.

“I broke my tibia, dislocated my shoulder, separated both shoulders, tore my groin off the bone once, and my hamstrings off the bone twice, broke fingers and ribs, tore my medial collateral ligament, suffered brain trauma,” noted Jackson.

“Standard pain management in the NFL,” said Jackson. “Is pain pills and pregame injections. But not all players favor the pill and needle approach. In my experience (says Jackson), many prefer marijuana.”

After Colorado – home state to the Denver Broncos – legalized recreational marijuana smoking, questions arose as to whether NFL players in Colorado, who chose to use marijuana for pain management or other such reasons, would be permitted to do so, since they would not violate state law.

Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, told USA Today Sports, “The NFL’s policy is collectively bargained and will continue to apply in the same manner it has for decades. Marijuana remains prohibited under the NFL substance abuse program.”

According to the 2010 National Football League Policy and Program for Substance Abuse, which was agreed to by the National Football League Players Association and the National Football League Management Council, “Tests (for marijuana) will be deemed positive if they are confirmed by laboratory analysis at the following urine concentration levels: delta 9-THC-carboxylic acid (e.g., marijuana and marijuana by- products, including but not limited to hemp oil) – 15 ng/ml.”

Most players are tested once a year under the NFL’s substance abuse policy between April 20 and August 9. Additionally, “Players who test positive for a banned drug are placed in the league’s substance abuse program, where the testing is more frequent.”

Jackson commented that, “The NFL’s threshold for disciplinary action for marijuana is 10 times higher than the one used by the International Olympic Committee.”

Recently, Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon, who led the NFL last year with 1,646 receiving yards, was suspended for the entire season for testing positive for marijuana. Brown previously had a positive test for codeine, which he attributed to a strep throat.

Does marijuana serve as a gateway drug to the same extent as drugs such as cocaine?

“Although there are many qualifications I could provide,” said Dr. Peter Winsauer, Professor of Pharmacology at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine, who conducts research in the area of behavioral pharmacology, “The answer is no, and certainly from the article (Jackson’s editorial), one could say the abuse potential for marijuana is less than that for opioid analgesics. This is likely because both drugs produce a psychological dependence, but only the opioids also produce a robust physical dependence.”

Is there a place for Marijuana as an alternative treatment for pain management from sports related injuries and trauma?

Winsauer said: “Possibly; however, much more research needs to be done.  We know cannabinoids (the constituents of marijuana) have analgesic effects, but these effects can also intertwine with psychoactive effects similar to other analgesics (pain killers).  So, just as marijuana may produce less abuse liability and capacity for producing physical dependence, it is also a weaker analgesic than the opioids. ”

We will have to wait on this issue, since the NFL has its hands full now sorting out its domestic abuse problem.

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