NFL and Players May Join Forces on Medical Marijuana

nfl and medical marijuana

The National Football League generated $13 billion in revenue in 2016.[i]  The next closest professional sports league was Major League Baseball at $9.5 billion.  In comparison, the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, both global soccer powerhouses, generated approximately $8.09 billion in revenue, combined.

While the NFL pales in comparison to corporate giants like Wal-Mart, Apple, and Amazon, it is clearly a financial and cultural giant in the United States.  It’s owners (see Robert Kraft and Bob McNair) and the NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, are politically connected both based on financial support and the popularity of their sport.   When the NFL acts, people generally notice.

That’s why a recent letter from the NFL to the NFL Players Association (“NFLPA”) is so interesting.  On July 31, it was reported that the NFL had officially offered to join with the NFLPA to study the use of medical marijuana as a pain management tool.[ii]  Currently, the NFL has a strict ban on any use of marijuana by its athletes.  In fact, just this past April, Roger Goodell stated that marijuana is “addictive” and “unhealthy” with “no medical benefit.”[iii]

Yet with the mounting evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (“CTE””) in current and former players, and the federal lawsuit filed by 1,800 former NFL players alleging improper, illegal and deceptive distribution of opioids by NFL teams[iv], it seems that Mr. Goodell is reconsidering his position.

Almost 8,000 doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and controlled medications were prescribed to players in the 2012 calendar year, according to an internal document from NFL medical adviser Lawrence Brown …

Those numbers could average out to about six to seven pain pills or injections a week per player over the course of a typical NFL season, according to the report.

The NFLPA, presumably in an effort to protect its players, started a study of the medical benefits of marijuana last year.  Now, it looks as if the NFL is ready to acknowledge it was wrong and chip in.

From my standpoint, this is a no-brainer.  Marijuana, specifically the cannabinoid CBD has been proven to have anti-inflammatory and pain relief properties.  Given the apparent rampant abuse of opioids in the NFL, any pain management alternative should be investigated.

Further, CBD has been proven to be a neuroprotectant.  In fact, there is a U.S. patent for the use of cannabinoids as neuroprotectants based on the research of a Nobel prize winning biochemist.  These medicinal properties of CBD are distinct from the psychoactive properties of THC and more importantly, are show significant promise for the prevention and treatment of brain injuries and maladies, including CTE.[v]

The question becomes, how will the NFL potentially implement a medical marijuana policy across its 32 teams?  23 of the 32 teams are located in States having medical marijuana laws.  The remaining 9 teams are located in States with only legalized CBD oil, mainly for treating epilepsy.  The difficulty, and danger, facing the NFL/NFLPA is in the disparity of State laws.

For example, in Ohio, medical marijuana is legal for certain statutory medical conditions, including chronic and severe pain.  See R.C. 3796.01(A)(6). So, players on the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals can obtain prescriptions and use medical marijuana as a pain relief tool.  However, some states such as Illinois (See 40 ILCS 130/10(h)(1)) and Massachusetts (See 105 CMR 725.004) do not list generalized chronic pain as a qualifying medical condition.  So, what happens if the Cleveland Browns play the New England Patriots in Foxboro, MA?

… you mean beside the Browns losing?

While that is true, the bigger issue remains are Browns players who take their medical marijuana for pain in Massachusetts violating Massachusetts state law?  Can they be arrested?  Will a card carrying medical marijuana patient be treated as a recreational user in a State that does not recognize their qualifying medical condition?  The answer, I think, has to be yes.

And let’s not forget that marijuana is still illegal on the Federal level.  While legislation is in place to forego federal enforcement against State level medical marijuana use, there are questions about the Trump Justice Department’s commitment to that moratorium.  Is the big money, high profile NFL ready to risk federal enforcement against its teams, owners, and players?  Is the NFL willing to put its stamp on violating federal law in writing in a collective bargaining agreement?

Even with the proscription on federal enforcement against State level medical marijuana use, what happens when teams/players travel to different States for games?  Are they transporting a Schedule 1 controlled substance across State lines?  Are they trafficking?  At some point, isn’t it safe to assume the feds will take notice?  Even if teams & players choose to not travel with their medical marijuana, but instead purchase it while in the State, they are still faced with the potential issue of pain being an unsanctioned qualifying condition.  Moreover, nothing in the Ohio law indicates that out-of-state prescriptions/cards will be accepted in Ohio.  I am sure most other non-recreational States are similar.

Finally, what about when the football season is over?  During the offseason, many NFL players live in States different from those in which they play.  So, in our hypothetical, Player X from the Cleveland Browns uses medical marijuana for chronic pain.  In the offseason, Player X returns home to Idaho, which currently has no medical marijuana law of any kind. Player X is almost certainly breaking Idaho State law by possessing and using medical marijuana in the offseason.  This fact holds true for the remaining 21 States which have no medical marijuana laws or restrictive CBD specific laws.

While the NFL’s foray into medical marijuana is encouraging, it presents more questions than answers.  Also, it underscores the need for decriminalization of medical marijuana at the federal level.  The current rubric is schizophrenic, hypocritical, and untenable.

For more information on our Medical Marijuana practice, please check out the practice area page here.

[i] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-nfl-made-13-billion-last-season-see-how-it-stacks-up-against-other-leagues-2016-07-01

[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/sports/wp/2017/07/31/nfl-offers-to-work-with-players-union-to-study-marijuana-for-pain-management/?utm_term=.c2b39bbbc086

[iii] http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/19264404/commissioner-roger-goodell-says-nfl-sees-no-medical-benefits-marijuana

[iv] http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/18872827/nfl-teams-violated-federal-laws-regarding-prescription-painkillers

[v] https://www.si.com/nfl/2016/07/12/cannabis-cte-treatment-kannalife