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A Game Changer: NFL Steps into Medical Marijuana Research

Considering the NFL reported the highest rate of injury ever in 2020, it only makes sense that they are thinking outside the box for pain management. In a shocking turn of events, the league announced on June 8th, 2021, the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) will provide a staggering $1 million in funding for novel pain treatments, including cannabis and cannabinoid therapy.


While cannabis as an option for pain treatment isn’t a novel idea, cannabis in sports medicine is still highly controversial. Historically, all cannabinoids (including cannabidiol) were banned in professional sports, with THC typically considered a performance-enhancing drug alongside stimulants and steroids.


Research has come a long way since those days, but most professional and collegiate organizations still do not tolerate cannabinoids, even in strictly recreational settings. The NFL is one of the most progressive organizations in this sense, especially now as they enter into medical cannabis research.


NFL’s Research Intentions: Exploring Cannabis for Pain

With 801 injuries reported in 2020 and a 30 percent jump in reported concussions over numbers from 2014, the NFL is unsurprisingly looking at all their options.


According to Judy Battista reporting for the NFL, the primary goal of this recently announced research campaign is to determine if CBD and/or cannabis are safe and effective for pain management. The NFL is also tentatively looking for alternatives to the conventional opioid treatments available.


Part of the reason why the NFL is stepping into the cannabis research world is that the current body of study looking at this plant’s medicinal qualities doesn’t answer many of the questions pertinent for sports medicine. 


For example, if CBD and/or cannabis works to treat pain, does it affect performance? Or, what is the best dose to be both effective and minimize liver toxicity?


Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, stated in an interview with Battista that, in order for the league to allow for cannabis in sports, “there is a need for better information, better science.”


The league will be providing up to five research grants to eligible applicants by November 2021. 


NFL Among a Growing Number of Sports Leagues Open to Cannabis


The recent case of Sha’Carri Richardson has reminded the world about the strict drug policies still in place across national and international sports competitions. But, while it may take a long time for the International Olympic Committee to evolve its staunchly anti-cannabis stance, other organizations are adopting more liberal policies.


The NFL already has one of the most lenient drug policies.

In 2020, with a refreshed collective bargaining agreement in place for players, the organization decreased the drug testing requirements and increased the acceptable level of THC. Instead of a relatively low threshold of 35 nanograms, the league now considers a positive test for THC at a whopping 150 nanograms. 


This new stance toward cannabis makes sense considering the vast majority of teams exist in states with medical and/or recreational cannabis programs. 


According to an ESPN analysis, when they looked at 123 teams across the NFL, MLB, NHL, and the NBA, 82 percent exist in a state with legal access. The rising number of places legalizing adult-use and medicinal cannabis has forced many American (and even International) sports associations to reconsider strict anti-cannabis policies.


Beyond the NFL’s new relaxed policy, several other organizations are also changing their official opinions on the plant. For example, the NBA doesn’t test its players in the off-season. Another organization, MLB, doesn’t test its players at all for THC unless it has reasonable cause. 


In yet another evolution, the NHL no longer considers cannabis a banned substance. Even if a drug test returns a positive result for THC, it’s left up to league doctors to determine if there is an ongoing issue.


Cannabis a Growing Option for Sports Medicine


The NFL’s new research goal is a significant milestone for cannabis research. 


In the wider research world, there is already a case to be made for cannabis as a pain reliever, an alternative to opioids, and possibly even for concussions — yet none of these applications hasve been applied to sports.


The NFL has a specific goal in mind, and thus, the research it funds will answer very specific questions. For example, is cannabis and/or CBD safe for athletes? Is it an effective pain treatment for the sports-related injury? Is it performance-enhancing or diminishing? And how will dose size impact toxicity?


The rest of the sports world will undoubtedly learn a lot from the studies funded by the NFL and NFLPA.

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