We’re starting to learn these intense tackles, which used to be glorified on ESPN with weekly recap videos of the hardest hits, are causing serious brain injuries like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Concussions seem to be commonplace in the NFL, chalked up as part of the game, but new research is pointing out just how dangerous repeated blows to the head can be. The scary part is, there is no cure for CTE and it’s difficult to research because it can only be properly diagnosed after death by means of an autopsy.
Another staggering statistic, recently discovered and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is that in a “sample of 202 deceased players of American football from a brain donation program, CTE was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 players across all levels of play (87%), including 110 of 111 former National Football League players (99%).” You read that right, 99% of former NFL player’s brains were diagnosed with CTE. 1 This clearly makes the disease a widespread issue among those who participate in American football, especially the NFL. Since CTE is known to be caused by repetitive brain injury, the only truly preventative measure we’re aware of is abstaining from participation in high contact sports like football. Avoiding taking blows to the head may seem like the only advice, but athletes are looking for their own answers, and some are finding it to be cannabis.
Even though the World Anti-Doping Agency removed cannabidiol (CBD), a cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant, from their banned substance list, the NFL still forbids its use. We recently spoke with Justin Staples, who is a former professional linebacker for the NFL, and asked him about his thoughts on cannabis in treating injuries like CTE. Staples played 5 seasons of college football, for the University of Illinois, before going pro and playing 5 seasons in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans. He recently transitioned from his professional football career into the cannabis industry. He is now the Director of Business Development for Revolution Cannabis in Illinois, and he co-hosts The Vault Podcast where they interview experts from the industry to debunk the negative stigma of cannabis.
When it comes to his physical health, Staples considers himself lucky compared to other teammates and friends he witnessed suffer from major injuries, repeated concussions, and the negative side effects of long-term pharmaceutical use. Staples was diagnosed with two concussions during his decade-long career as a defensive lineman, and he remembers several incidences where he would have short blackouts during practices and games. “It was accustomed that you’d have these blackout moments…it’s just commonplace in the game.” He went on to talk about how we’re now learning these temporary blackouts are actually concussions in themselves, contributing to CTE in the NFL and other high contact sports. He also brought up the overuse of dangerous NSAIDs like ibuprofen, and the over-prescription of opioids that are used to mask pain. “I’d look around the locker room and I knew guys who had to take a 10 Advil Tylenol mixture and a multitude of pharmaceuticals daily just go out there and do their job.” These drugs might be keeping players on the field for game time, but at what cost? NSAIDs wreak havoc on your stomach and intestines, and opioids come with high rates of addiction and abuse.
When asked what he thinks the NFL should do to address the use of cannabis in the NFL, Staples replied, “I want the NFL to check every avenue, including cannabis, improving helmets, conditioning pads, and supporting programs like Heads Up Football.”
If the NFL refuses to accept cannabis as an alternative medicine even though research is indicating its success in treating degenerative brain diseases like CTE, then the question is “Do we even want to risk our kids’ lives going out to play this sport?” This is a powerful question that poses another. How much evidence is supporting the position cannabis could play on the football field?
The United States government holds a patent, 6630507, on the cannabinoids found in cannabis. Cannabinoids are the molecular compounds found in the cannabis plant. 2 There are several cannabinoids in cannabis, but the ones that get the most attention are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and cannabidiol (CBD). Patent 6630507 states, “cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.” 2 A neuroprotectant is something known to improve recovery and possible regeneration of the nervous system, cells, and their functions prior to and after damage. Compounds like THC and CBD have been shown to be successful in helping treat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. 3 Since the symptoms of CTE are very similar to those suffering from Alzheimer’s, we can suggest cannabis may be able to improve the quality of life for those with CTE.
Although there are several published studies on the medicinal benefits of cannabis, there is still a great need for research on how it can help with treating CTE, and maybe even prevent it from developing. On the other hand, we still don’t know a lot about CTE in general, and more research in this field is needed as well. Once we have a better understanding of how to properly diagnose and treat CTE, we can hopefully combine what we know about the neuroprotective properties of cannabinoids like THC and CBD in order to come up with a preventative solution and an appropriate treatment plan for those actively experiencing symptoms.
We may love football, but do we really want to sacrifice the quality of life for the players who are working so hard to entertain us? Shouldn’t we stand up for their right to consume cannabis as a safer alternative to the NFL’s current pharmaceutical game plan? Former professional players like Justin Staples believe so. There are groups like Athletes For Care, which were founded by former professional athletes, advocating for research, education, and compassion when addressing important health issues like CTE and the use of cannabis. The Gridiron Cannabis Coalition is another group of athletes who are determined to allow NFL players the option of an organic treatment for injury and illness through cannabis. With the research evidence rising, and more former and current professional athletes coming out of the green closet, hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before the NFL tries to tackle CTE head on with cannabis.
Thoughts from The Grateful Veteran
CANNABIS: THE EXIT DRUG
Cannabis is medicine and has saved my life. However, for some veterans it can be a battle to even think about using medical cannabis. After serving in the military for 20 years, under the zero-tolerance drug policy, I can tell you it can be a mental struggle. The stigma surrounding medical cannabis and its use for a veteran is based on what they were taught in the military about street drugs and drug use and abuse. So, for them, seeking an alternative medicine can make them feel like a drug abuser. In my case, the Navy was my entrance to opioid use, and cannabis was my exit drug.
When I retired from the Navy, I was dependent on opioids, and I was able to break that cycle with medical cannabis. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. A veteran considering medical cannabis may struggle with many issues like the stigma of marijuana use, accessibility of medicine, cannabis being federally Illegal, and cost compared to pharmaceuticals.
The stigma of medical cannabis being a joke or just a way for someone to legally get “high” is enough for some veterans to turn away. Truth be told, it is much easier for the veteran to continue whatever their current line of treatment is than to try medical cannabis. Most veterans respect the opinion the civilian public has of them. So, the feeling of doing something that is not considered part of the norm is troubling. Honestly, when I first started my medical cannabis journey, I hid my cannabis use and didn’t celebrate my successful exit from opioids. I didn’t want people judging me based on what I used to get well. I hid the fact that I was able to come off of seven other pharmaceutical medications because of the stigma surrounding marijuana. When I got my MMJ recommendation, my pain management doctor that had be prescribing me opioids made me feel like a drug seeker. I refused opioids from him and was subsequently released as a patient a week later.
Currently, within a one-hour drive, I have three Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers (MMTC). Many times, there is a long line of an hour or more. In addition, your wait may be for naught because they may not have the particular strain or type of product you need to treat your condition. The Board of Commissions for several counties in Florida have upheld a moratorium on MMTCs in their counties which restricts patients to deliveries only. Deliveries work great for some; however, you have to make yourself available for a span of 2 to 4 hours. Also, some MMTCs do not deliver next day and some don’t deliver at all, so you are extremely limited in the access and availability of your medicine.
Marijuana is still federally illegal, and although it is medically legal in some states, veterans will worry about their VA benefits, medical treatment, retirements, and disability ratings. The question is always asked what about my VA benefits: will I lose them or my retirement? The VA’s stance from the www.va.gov is if you are a veteran in a state that has passed laws regarding medical cannabis, you can communicate your use to your doctor, but they cannot advise you on medical cannabis use. You will not lose any benefits, and they cannot release you from care. Knowing this, you cannot go to another state with your medical cannabis because you’re crossing state lines, which is federally illegal. This type of antiquated thinking hardens the edge of the marijuana stigma while decreasing the ease of use.
As a veteran, I am privileged to have excellent healthcare and access to treatments, mental healthcare, and pharmaceuticals. My pharmaceutical medications either come to me in the mail for free, or I go to the local pharmacy and pay a few bucks for anything prescribed. Medical cannabis is not covered by insurance or the VA. Depending on your condition, the cost could be very expensive. For those who are most sick, they may not be in a position to afford the best medicine for them.