MLB Allows Marijuana – NFL Says No Weed
Former Denver Bronco, NFL Hall of Famer, and two-time Super Bowl champion Terrell Davis has been pushing for the National Football League to permit players to use cannabidiol (CBD) products to relieve pain and support healing. Davis held a press conference in August 2019 where he said about CBD, "It's a beautiful thing. It's worked for me. It's worked for a lot of people."
Why the NFL Continues to Ban Marijuana as MLB Lifts Restrictions
The NFL held a fact-finding forum for CBD in January 2020 together with CBD manufacturers. Since May 2019, the league has sponsored a committee to study the use of pain management therapies including CBD, cannabis, and cannabinoids. As of April 2020, in contrast to Major League Baseball’s removal of THC from drug testing panels, the NFL still banned players from using THC and some CBD products. THC is the intoxicating, psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant, commonly referred to as marijuana. CBD, aka cannabidiol, is a bioactive, not psychoactive, compound also found in cannabis sativa, the marijuana plant.
Inadequate research on the effect of CBD products and marijuana use
Dr. Kevin Hill and Dr. Geoff Ling are the Co-Chairs of the NFL-NFLPA Pain Management Committee (PMC). The committee distributed two white papers on CBD and pain management at their January 2020 fact finding forum. The white paper intended for team medical staff said, “CBD is a promising compound, but the extent of its use in the United States outpaces the level of evidence.” The report also said that trials on the effectiveness of cannabis (THC) and cannabinoids were promising but used small study groups and had short follow-up periods.
NFL’s ALT-O: Alternatives to Opioids
Major League Baseball officially removed marijuana, including THC and CBD, from its list of banned substances in December 2019, focusing instead on opioid misuse. MLB’s policy was influenced by the untimely death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs due to an overdose of fentanyl, oxycodone, and alcohol in July 2019.
The NFL’s white paper for players focuses on opioid alternatives, because opioid misuse has been a significant issue in the league. The NFL-NFLPA Pain Management Committee recommended aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen for chronic pain, along with biofeedback, acupuncture, and therapeutic massage. The committee also recommended exercise therapy like swimming, yoga, and walking as relief for chronic pain conditions.
NFL message to players: CBD promising, research confusing
The second part of the NFL report focused on CBD/cannabidiol. The committee told players that “the state of the science is confusing.”
After explaining that the cannabis plant contains hundreds of chemical compounds called cannabinoids, the report identified THC and CBD, pointing out that THC produces a “high” effect “as well as paranoia that some users feel as well.” According to the report, CBD “seems to have exciting anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic effects.”
The report informed players that “CBD is a promising compound” but mentioned that most of the excitement about its use resulted from animal studies. “Clinical trials are usually needed before millions of Americans use a medication for serious medical problems.”
NFL Players’ White Paper misses some information
The NFL committee’s white paper for players mentioned two THC-based chronic pain medications which have been available for years: dronabinol and nabilone. However, the report did not mention Epidiolex, the first CBD-based medication approved by the FDA.
Following extensive clinical studies and parent advocacy, the FDA approved Epidiolex in 2018 for the treatment of severe childhood epilepsy. Epidiolex was initially made in the UK because industrial hemp (cannabis sativa) was illegal to grow and process in the U.S. until passage of the 2018 Farm Bill.
Will NFL players be able to use CBD for pain management in 2020?
In addition to Terrell Davis, who is a co-owner of a company that makes and markets Defy CBD beverages, former NFL players who have used CBD to relieve pain and reduce anxiety include recently-retired Patriot Rob Gronkowski and former NY Giants receiver Tiki Barber.
The NFL committee is still studying the benefits and safety of cannabidiol (CBD) for pain relief. The NFL’s policy on cannabis stayed the same since the last collective bargaining agreement in 2011.
Seattle Seahawks receiver Josh Gordon was suspended indefinitely for the fifth time in December 2019 for violating the NFL’s drug policy. Gordon has publicly stated he self-medicates with cannabis. K.J. Wright, NFL Players Association rep for the Seahawks, told USA Today, “I don’t know why that’s still a rule.”
NFL players approved their collective bargaining agreement March 15, 2020. The deal reduced the window for drug testing and the number of players subjected to testing, but it did not permit unlimited use of THC or CBD products.
The agreement increased the amount of THC qualifying for a positive test from 35 nanograms of carboxy THC per milliliter of urine to 150 nanograms. Players will no longer be suspended if they test positive for THC. The amount of THC allowed means that the majority of CBD product users in the NFL are unlikely to test positive for THC, effectively making it possible for an NFL player to use CBD topical rubs and creams, vapes, or oral tinctures without violating the NFL’s no-THC policy.