The Potential Role of Medical Marijuana in Sports
Under Federal law, medical marijuana is still categorized as a Schedule 1 drug. The implication is that it remains banned by the governing bodies of most major sports including the NFL, NBA, MLB, etc. Athletes competing in any of these sports are not allowed to use medical marijuana at any point during their professional careers. However, a lot of things have changed about medical marijuana within the past couple of decades. It all started with California legalizing the use of medical marijuana for specified conditions. Now 33 states have legalized some form of medical marijuana or the other. It’ll be foolhardy to assume that the current status of medical marijuana in sports would remain the same for a long time to come.
As more research becomes available, the argument that athletes would benefit greatly from the therapeutic effects of medical marijuana can no longer be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Retired professional athletes that have realized the power of the drug are increasingly speaking out. The present concerns that it may affect the clarity of judgment of athletes do not hold any water. And the general attitude points to the fact that medical marijuana may soon be made legal for athletes participating in our major sports. We daresay such as move would be a win-win for everyone concerned.
Giant Strides are Being Taken
The World Anti-Doping Agency, a foundation initiated by the International Olympic Committee already relaxed its rules concerning medical marijuana. Athletes can benefit from the therapeutic effects of Cannabidiol and its preparations at any time during their careers while regular cannabis can only be used outside of competition. One would assume that other professional sports leagues would follow suit. However, there appears to be a stubborn reluctance to review the current doping rules.
The NFL perhaps best exemplifies the paradox that is professional sports leagues and medical cannabis. Numerous players have admitted to using medical cannabis during their professional careers. The governing body of the NFL has ‘expressed the idea’ that researching into and reviewing the current status of medical cannabis may be worth it. For now, no bold steps have been taken and players that are caught with significant amounts of medical cannabis in their system still get the ban, just like other players that are caught using a banned substance.
Is Marijuana a Solution to Opioid Addiction among Sportsmen?
Virtually all professional athletes have to deal with pain at some point in their career or the other. The frequency and severity of injuries only vary from sport to sport. Using the NFL as a case study, injuries seem commonplace among athletes and players regularly have to play through the pain barrier. Nate Jackson, a former NFL player whose career was truncated by injuries said ‘I medicated with marijuana for most of my career as a tight end from 2003 through 2008. And I needed the medication. I broke my tibia, dislocated my shoulder, separated both shoulders, tore my groin off the bone once and my hamstring off the bone twice, broke fingers and ribs, tore my medial collateral ligament, suffered brain trauma, etc. Most players have similar medical charts. And every one of them needs the medicine.’
The current standard for pain management in the NFL is largely based on opioids and pre-game injections. Prescription opioids are known to be addictive and they also impair judgment. While studies have shown that when opioids are used as prescribed, the patients are highly unlikely to develop an addiction, cases of athletes abusing opioids are too rampant for everyone to keep turning a blind eye.
If the ongoing opioid crisis has taught us anything at all, it is that people would continue to abuse opioids if they do not have an alternative. An ESPN study of opioid addiction among NFL players revealed that they are four times more likely to abuse opioids than the general population. 71% of the respondents in the study admitted misusing opioids during their playing days. Worse still, the addiction is just as difficult to control as it is with the general population. About 15% of those who abused during their playing days further admitted that they had abused opioids within the 30 days prior to the study. If we continue ignoring this reality, we would keep exposing our beloved sportsmen to a life they would rather do without.
The available body of evidence shows that marijuana has excellent pain management properties. CBD and THC, the major constituents of marijuana have shown have been shown to work for different types of pain. THC is known to help with chronic neuropathic pain that results from a physical injury or minor surgery. CBD, on the other hand, works well for nociceptive pain. When used together, athletes trying to manage their pain could benefit greatly from the synergistic effects of both compounds as well as the other compounds in medical marijuana.
Using medical marijuana in sports with the potential to bring an end to the current opioid crisis is not only being discussed among sportsmen. Although addiction to medical cannabis can develop, the potential for addiction is much less when compared with opioids. Furthermore, medical marijuana overdose is not fatal. Opioid overdose, on the other hand, claims the life of 130 Americans daily. If both drugs can be equally effective in pain management, there is no reason why we shouldn’t try replacing opioids with medical marijuana.
What are Some of the Concerns about Medical Marijuana in Sports?
Like every other drug, medical marijuana use does not come without potential side effects. THC, the psychoactive component of medical marijuana is known to affect cognitive development and impair judgment in some users. The resultant effect is that athletes using medical marijuana are more likely to take risks. A 2011 study revealed that athletes might be making use of the numbing effects of marijuana to work through pain, forget bad falls, and take more risks during their training session.
Athletes that compete when they are high on marijuana may show signs of lethargy and impaired concentration. This could lead to even more injuries in the long run. Furthermore, the use of medical marijuana in people with a history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder is generally not recommended. Another point of concern is that marijuana may have a negative impact on cognitive development in adolescents. If athletes start using it too early, they might be on the losing end in the long run.
There is no denying the existence of these side effects. But like all other drugs, the side effects of medical marijuana do not occur in everyone. Quoting from Nate Jackson, “In my playing days, the marijuana smokers struck me as sharper, more thoughtful and more likely to challenge authority than the non-smokers. It makes me wonder if we weren’t that way because marijuana allowed us to avoid the heavy daze of pain pills. It gave us clarity. It kept us sane.”
While the account of one individual is hardly enough evidence, it is almost common knowledge that a sizeable number of NFL players use medical marijuana, even with its banned status. Many retired professionals have come out to admit it kept them going in their playing days. Unsurprisingly, the NFL is the one sport that has the highest number of medical marijuana advocates.
The concern that marijuana may mask the presence of other performance-enhancing substances cannot be ignored. This could complicate the drug testing process among athletes. All these concerns tell us that marijuana use in sports should be monitored if it is eventually allowed.