Is The NFL Struggling With Marijuana Usage?

Ever since a 2013 Gallup poll revealed for the first time that most Americans support cannabis legalization, there has been a mad dash within the NFL and other sports leagues to make sense of society’s shifting sensibilities. After all, these organizations cater to Joe Everyman, and their values should be in alignment with what the people want—in theory.

In reality, there are numerous legal considerations. Still, marijuana use in the NFL is increasing, and many players are becoming fed up with the side effects of heavy-duty prescription painkillers. Many players view cannabis as a relatively cheap analgesic.

Pot Use in the NFL

smokingpagoda-the-nfl-and-pot-usageMarvin Washington, who joined the league in 1989 and played 10 seasons, has stated on numerous occasions that most players don’t use the drug recreationally. In an interview, Washington asked, “What if you could take something that helps you heal faster from a concussion, that prevents your equilibrium from being off for two weeks and your eyesight for being off for four weeks?” Washington has refused to name names or give an exact figure on how many NFL players use cannabis, but he has said that he “new his share” of players who did. The one-time New York Jets player also noted that he knew a few players who took cannabis to avoid the painkillers that managers were giving out at the time.

Marcellus Wiley, who also played 10 seasons, has estimated that at least half of NFL players were using the drug during the 2006 season. Anecdotal evidence provided by the NFL itself in the form of reported arrest records and internal discipline reports suggests that more players than ever before are turning to cannabis. Redskins offensive lineman Ryan Clark is on record as saying, “I know a lot of guys who don’t regularly smoke marijuana who would use it during the season.” This comes as no surprise. Studies like the one commissioned in 2013 by Edgeworth Economics, suggest that American football is one of the most dangerous sports in the world, and that injuries are increasing in frequency.

Medicinal Properties of Cannabis

According to Mark Ware, MD, three puffs a day on cannabis can help people cope with chronic pain. According to Ware, who is the assistant professor of anesthesia at McGill University, marijuana can also help those affected with chronic nerve pain to sleep better.

 Already, according to the Canadian doctor, 10-15% of chronic pain sufferers in the country have turned to the drug for relief. This number is somewhat surprising given that just 20 years ago, there was scant evidence of marijuana’s ability to mitigate pain. What is not surprising, however, is that research into the plant’s medicinal properties is exploding around the world, but remaining rather flat in the United States. While the Obama Administration has been extremely tolerant of states legalizing the drug, the official stance of the government remains that the plant has no medicinal properties.

Ware’s double-blind study compared the effectiveness of three doses of cannabis against a placebo. The research was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Ryan Vandrey, a behavioral psychologist at John Hopkins, says, “There’s pretty good science that shows marijuana does have pain relieving properties. Whether it’s a better pain reliever than the other things available has never been evaluated.”

Current Regulations

In 2012, amidst rumors that several states may soon legalize pot, NFL representative Greg Aiello stated, “The NFL’s policy is collectively bargained and will continue to apply in the same manner it has for decades.” As of 2014, the NFL’s substance abuse program lists marijuana as a prohibited substance. A few coaches, most notably Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks, have come out in favor of lifting the ban on the drug in light of its pain-relieving properties.


The NFL, while actually a non-profit according to the IRS, nevertheless rakes in huge amounts of money each year. If it weren’t for the fact that the organization were beset with lawsuits, the NFL might well have ignored the marijuana issue. However, the organization is facing allegations that they pushed high-risk painkillers on players with full knowledge of the serious side effects these painkillers could cause.

Washington and other players are working with KannaLife, a pharmaceutical startup that is developing painkillers derived from cannabis, to push the NFL to allow them to use the drugs. The drugs would show up in marijuana detection tests. Thoma Kikis, co-founder of KannaLife, claims that the NFL has ignored his attempts to resolve the issue out of court.