The NFL announced on Tuesday that it has authorized $1 million in grants for a pair of studies looking into the efficacy of marijuana and its components in managing football players’ pain and providing neuroprotection from concussions.
A commission of the NFL and the league’s players union first previewed the funding plan in June, emphasizing the strong interest among players and other stakeholders in exploring the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.
There were more than 100 applications from researchers to carry out the studies, and the commission selected two: the University of California San Diego and University of Regina in Canada.
“As with the league’s broader approach to health and safety, we want to ensure that our players are receiving care that reflects the most up-to-date medical consensus,” NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills said in a press release. “While the burden of proof is high for NFL players who want to understand the impact of any medical decision on their performance, we are grateful that we have the opportunity to fund these scientifically-sound studies on the use of cannabinoids that may lead to the discovery of data-based evidence that could impact the pain management of our players.”
Kevin Hill, a cannabis research who serves as co-chair of the NFL-NFLPA Joint Pain Management Committee (PMC), told The Associated Press that there are several reasons that studies into the pain management potential of marijuana has been limited, including the fact that it remains a Schedule I federally controlled substance.
That “makes it harder to do this research,” he said, echoing a point he made in response to a question from Marijuana Moment during a press briefing last summer. But he also blamed industry “stakeholders” who he alleged don’t want to support more studies because cannabis products are already widely available and being used.
“The NFL-NFLPA Joint Pain Management Committee is thrilled with the results of this process,” Hill said in a press release. “We received over 100 proposals from top clinicians and researchers from around the world. The NFL is eager to advance the science of pain management and performance in an effort to improve the health and safety of the players.”
Mark Wallace, co-principal investigator and director of the Center for Pain Medicine at UC San Diego Health, said that his team is “excited to receive this funding to conduct a systematic, ‘real-world, real-time’ study with professional athletes, and which should shed further light upon the many anecdotal reports that cannabis is helpful in reducing post-competition pain.”
The newly funded research initiatives will take three years to complete.
When the grant opportunity was first discussed last year, NFL said it was primarily interested in three areas of research:
- the effects of cannabinoids on pain in elite football players (post-surgical and/or in daily pain management)
- the effects of non-pharmacologic treatments on pain in elite football players (postsurgical and/or in daily pain management)
- the effects of cannabis or cannabinoids on athletic performance (e.g., psychomotor, reaction time, cardiorespiratory function) in elite football players.”
The joint NFL-NFLPA committee held two informational forums on CBD in 2020, and while their initial findings were not definitive, PMC determined that the non-intoxicating cannabis compound shows promise in the treatment of some forms of pain, but the science doesn’t currently live up to the “hype.”
“The prevention and treatment of concussions is at the core of my research,” Patrick Neary, an exercise physiologist and professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the University of Regina, said. “That’s why I am excited to have the support of the NFL on this project.”
“Our interdisciplinary research team believes that different cannabinoid formulations found in medical cannabis have the potential to benefit athletes suffering from the acute and long-term chronic effects of concussions,” he said. “Our research will also work to show that cannabinoids can be used as an alternative to opioids for pain management.”
There’s no guarantee that positive findings that affirm the pain relieving qualities of cannabis would lead the league to lift its ban on players using marijuana despite its growing legal states in numerous states. But following NFL’s drug testing policy already changed demonstrably in 2020 as part of a collective bargaining agreement.
NFL players no longer face the possibility of being suspended from games over positive tests for any drug—not just marijuana—under a collective bargaining agreement. Instead, they will face a fine. The threshold for what constitutes a positive THC test was also increased under the deal.
Drug testing policies have been revised in other sports leagues too in recent years.
The NBA announced late last year that is extending its policy of not randomly drug testing players for marijuana through the 2021-2022 season. The association won’t be subjecting players to random drug testing for THC; however, they will continue to test “for cause” cases where players have histories of substance use.
In a similar vein, the MLB decided in 2019 to remove cannabis from the league’s list of banned substances. Baseball players can consume marijuana without risk of discipline, but officials clarified last year that they can’t work while under the influence and can’t enter into sponsorship contracts with cannabis businesses, at least for the time being.
Drug testing athletes became an issue that made international headlines last year following the suspension of U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson from participating in the Olympics over a positive THC test.
The World Anti-Doping Agency later announced that it will be conducting a scientific review of marijuana this year to determine whether it should continue an international ban on cannabis use by athletes.
Marijuana icon Snoop Dogg also recently argued that sports leagues need to stop testing players for marijuana and allow to them to use it as an alternative to prescription opioids.