Quarterback Jake Plummer of the Denver Broncos during the AFC Divisional Playoff game against the New England Patriots at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado on January 14, 2005. The Broncos beat the Patriots 27-13 to advance to the AFC Championship. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/NFLPhotoLibrary)

Sports & Fitness

The NFL punishes pot use. But a growing number of former players say it’s better than painkillers

It’s September, two days before another NFL season begins, and Jake Plummer is describing the chronic pain of a decade spent in professional football, as if it were once an indistinguishable part of him, the specter of which he couldn’t relinquish until years later, when a friend introduced him to CBD, and a career’s worth of pain disappeared with only a few droplets under his tongue.

Pain was a constant, unwelcome visitor, even after he left the game. Like so many other NFL players – current and former – Plummer chased relief any way he could. To avoid painkillers, he often medicated with alcohol. Still, every morning, his joints ached. By 2012, as he laid in recovery from extensive microfracture surgery on his hip, he fell into a depression. Why, he wondered, had he ever decided to play football?

Four years later, the one-time Broncos and Cardinals gunslinger sits on stage at the L.A. Convention Center. The joint pain is gone. The splitting headaches he suffered have waned. All, he says, because of his now-daily use of cannabidiol (CBD) – a non-psychoactive compound from the cannabis plant, which does not produce a high.

“This is my first convention for cannabis,” he tells a standing-room only crowd at the Cannabis World Expo, to a rousing round of applause.

Plummer is perhaps the most recognizable face in a growing group of former players taking up the fight for marijuana – and CBD, especially – as an answer to the NFL’s decades-long battle with chronic pain. As the NFL continues to push its players toward painkillers, Plummer tells the crowd, the league has a duty to its players to consider the alternative in a drug the league has long demonized.

“This game isn’t getting any safer,” Plummer says. “Players shouldn’t be punished for wanting a healthier option.”

More Americans are beginning to agree. Twenty-eight states have passed some form of legislation allowing the use of medical marijuana. Eight of those states, including California, have voted to allow recreational use as well. A Gallup poll in October found that more than 60 percent of Americans support federal legalization.

And yet, as the NFL waits on definitive scientific evidence, it continues to view marijuana in the same class as heroin and cocaine. This season alone, the league has meted out 26 suspensions for “substance abuse” – the majority of which are marijuana-related. The most recent suspension was handed to Bills offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson, who has said he uses marijuana to treat a debilitating case of Crohn’s disease.

“(The NFL) claims to want players to be healthier and safe,” Plummer says. “Well, let’s actually see that.”

The movement for acceptance may finally be gaining traction. With funding from former Ravens offensive lineman Eugene Monroe, a Colorado non-profit has emerged on the front lines of research, rolling out two studies of NFL players – current and former – to help understand their use of marijuana, the drug’s capacity as a pain-relief alternative, and even, perhaps, the possibility it could have neurologically regenerative properties. Some believe such research could hold the key to solving the league’s concussion crisis.

The NFL has since held a conference call with the researchers involved – another sign that the tides may slowly be turning. In November, the NFL Players Association took its own step toward change, announcing it would study methods for chronic pain relief, marijuana included.

Significant obstacles remain. At the moment, evidence of marijuana’s positive effects are only anecdotal. The stigma surrounding marijuana still lingers, as does the specter of federal prohibition, and seven states where the NFL is played still prohibit marijuana use. Many current players remain leery of speaking out, fearful for their jobs.

But as the push for acceptance gains momentum and the case for cannabis as the solution to NFL players’ chronic pain – and possibly more – is made, the question bears asking.

What will it take for the NFL to accept marijuana?

OLD FIGHT

In 1982, at the height of America’s “War on Drugs,” the NFL and NFLPA negotiated a collective bargaining agreement that prohibited marijuana and granted the league the right to test players for drug use. By 1986, in spite of scant evidence that the program was pushing players away from weed, Commissioner Pete Rozelle tried, unsuccessfully, to take the policy a step further by pushing for the right to test NFL players at random.

Decades later, the NFL remains the most restrictive of American professional sports leagues on the issue of marijuana. (The NHL no longer even has marijuana on its banned substance list.) And yet, as the NFL’s popularity skyrocketed, locker rooms have become reliant on much more powerful – and harmful – drugs to numb the pain caused by football.

Nate Jackson felt that pain during his six seasons, from 2003 to 2008, as a pass-catcher with the Broncos. He broke his tibia, dislocated both shoulders and misaligned his clavicle. He suffered head and neck trauma. He tore both his hamstring and groin clean off the bone. Each injury, he said, was meant taking “pills and more pills.“

“There were anti-inflammatories that ate away at your stomach lining. There were injections in my feet, my knees, my shoulders, my hamstrings. I stood in line, before every game, and got an injection of Toradol (a powerful anti-inflammatory) in my butt.”

Jackson’s experience is hardly unique. In constant battle for roster spots, the pressure on NFL players to return from injury, or to play despite injury, is immense. Several former players told stories of injured teammates buying additional opioids from outside doctors, or other teammates, in order to stay on the field. PIummer remembers teammates who relied on Percocet just to practice.

Last year, a class-action lawsuit filed against the NFL alleged that several teams threatened to cut players from their roster unless they took painkillers to return to the field. A recent attempt by the NFL at dismissing the case was denied by a federal judge in Northern California. The allegations suggested in the case didn’t shock any former players who spoke with the Register.

“It’s a weird culture in which these guys will do anything to play,” says Jackson, who penned a book, “Slow Getting Up,” on his experience playing through pain. “Guys will take any amount of drugs to be able to play. Your self-worth is based on if you’re playing this game. So you’ll play at all costs.

“But isn’t there something (messed) up about the fact that these guys need heavy drugs every week just to get on the field?”

Kevin House Jr. remembers that pressure. As a young player, he watched in awe as future Hall of Famers Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison played through extreme pain, covered with dark bruises from head to toe. Most days, House felt as if he’d been in a car crash. After games, the former cornerback remembers team trainers passing around a box of painkillers in the locker room or on the team plane, with different labeled compartments for different drugs.

“There weren’t really prescriptions,” House recalls. “We could just grab all the opiates we thought we needed.”

In his final full season, 2005, House suffered a severe injury to his forearm while playing with the Seahawks, requiring surgery and extensive recovery time. He says he was given a morphine drip every 30 minutes after his surgery. After the morphine, he took vicodin. After two months, he’d lost 20 pounds, his appetite was gone, and depression overtook him. Family and friends eventually confronted him about weaning off his prescriptions.

Marvin Washington, a former Super Bowl MVP who played 10 seasons in the NFL, remembers a teammate vomiting onto a locker-room card game one Sunday after taking eight Percocet and washing it down with four beers. “I thought he was going to die,” Washington says.

Kyle Turley, a former offensive lineman with the Rams and Saints, has spoken about how his 20-year reliance on opioids nearly led him to take his own life. That cycle ended, he says, when he turned to marijuana as an alternative.

A 2011 study from Washington University in St. Louis and commissioned by ESPN found that 71 percent of retired NFL players who used opioids during their playing careers admitted to some form of abuse. The study also found that retired NFL players abuse opioids at a rate four times higher than that of the general population.

That’s particularly startling given that the nation is in the grips of an opioid epidemic. In 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a record 28,647 Americans died from overdoses of heroin other opioids.

“(Opioids) become a regimen,” House says. “It becomes something that you need. You’re dependent. No one has ever been dependent on marijuana.”

This is a crucial point for most advocating for marijuana’s acceptance in the NFL. They see marijuana as a pain-relief option with minimal downside, even if its medicinal upside remains mostly unproven. Opioids, meanwhile, offer the short-term benefit of numbing pain, but carry significant, long-term health risks – of which many players are unaware.

“Before you get a shot,” Plummer says, “the doctor isn’t saying, ‘This can cause upset stomach, rash, anal fissures, long-term brain issues.’ None of that is being said. There was no effort to tell us what we’re putting in our bodies.”

Jackson says he began his career as a “good soldier,” doing as he was told, avoiding marijuana out of fear of breaking the NFL’s rules. But by his sixth season, Jackson was leaning almost entirely on marijuana for pain relief and hiding his methods from the Broncos. Every night, he would sit alone at home, smoking away the pain in his back and his joints, letting it lull him into a deep, comfortable sleep. In his final month as a player, Jackson claims he treated a concussion entirely with marijuana. He believes, as some advocates are trying to prove, that marijuana protected his brain.

Jackson does not have any delusions of the NFL taking charge on such a significant social issue.

In February, commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged developments in the study of marijuana, but continued to maintain that the league’s drug policy was in players “best interest.” Still, there is evidence to suggest the league is taking some interest in marijuana’s potential. In the spring, league officials reached out to those involved with a study surveying the cannabis use of current players, in hopes of researching its pain-relief potential.

But progress remains slow, which has been frustrating to those, like Jackson, who maintain they aren’t asking for the NFL to advocate marijuana use.

“This doesn’t need to be Roger Goodell holding a press conference in front of a 20-foot weed leaf,” Jackson says. “Just don’t test guys for it. That means no one is being punished, and it’s out of the news. Study it. Research it. And then give it to guys if they need it. That’s it.”

SPEAKING OUT

In May, the Baltimore Ravens’ Monroe became the first active player to urge the NFL and NFLPA to remove marijuana from the league’s banned substance list and allow players to use medicinal marijuana as treatment for their chronic pain.

It was a risky stand. The team quickly distanced itself from Monroe’s advocacy. By June, he was released – a move Ravens coach John Harbaugh said was “100 percent (due to) football circumstances.” Monroe decided to retire soon after, taking up his advocacy full-time.

But Monroe’s abrupt exit from the league would raise questions about the NFL’s stigma surrounding marijuana – and its penchant for silencing those who speak out.

“The NFL wants obedient soldiers that do not ask questions,” Nate Jackson says.

Added House: “I watched guys in my career like (former running back and marijuana advocate) Ricky Williams who spoke out. You saw what happened to them.”

NFL agent Leigh Steinberg, who represented Williams, said the former Heisman winner lost tens of millions of dollars in potential salary and sponsorships due to his public advocacy of marijuana. As for players today, Steinberg says he “would not advise any player to even touch (the marijuana) issue.”

In Los Angeles, recreational marijuana use is now legal. But inside the Rams locker room, questions about cannabis are met mostly with apprehension. Some players refuse to talk about the issue at all, fearing the potential fallout.

Cory Harkey, the Rams fullback and players union representative, was clearly uneasy when asked about marijuana’s pain-relief potential. “Guys just don’t want to give the wrong impression,” he said.

Rodger Saffold agreed to discuss the issue frankly. The Rams starting offensive lineman says he does not use marijuana and maintains that, “if the NFL won’t condone marijuana use, then I’m not going to condone it, either.”

But Saffold has heard snippets of encouraging research. He worries about the impact of painkillers on his NFL peers and knows active players who believe marijuana could be a better alternative. The possibilities, he admits, are intriguing.

Still, Saffold says, “I think we’re miles away from that being part of the locker room.”

Any actual changes to the league’s marijuana policy would likely be negotiated through the NFLPA.

The league’s current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires in 2020, and some believe discussions about marijuana being removed from the banned substance list would be tabled until then. Though when asked about a possible timeline, NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy pointed out that changes to the substance abuse policy “may be negotiated at any time.”

As research continues and the NFL and NFLPA begin to show signs of a shift in their thinking about marijuana, that time may be drawing closer. But the hurdle of definitive scientific evidence remains, and the NFL will gladly wait out the research, suspending players multiple games – and, sometimes, a full season – for marijuana use, even as painkillers continue to wreak long-term havoc.

After feeling what marijuana did for his chronic pain, it’s a contradiction that Plummer simply cannot stand by and allow any longer.

“The world is changing,” Plummer says. “We’re not fighting (the NFL). We’re just trying to offer a solution to a problem that they’re never going to avoid, as much as they refuse to admit it.”