Marijuana Facts

NFL and players’ union to study potential use of marijuana for pain management

The NFL and the NFL Players Association have agreed to form two new joint medical committees, one of which is to study the potential use of marijuana as a pain-management tool for players and review teams’ policies and practices for the use of prescription medication by players.

The committees are to begin their work as soon as possible, league and union officials said. Any major policy changes still would have to be made through the traditional channels of the collective bargaining process between the NFL and NFLPA, or via their annual negotiations over the terms of their jointly administered drug policies.

But the committees are to provide recommendations and suggestions on key medical issues facing the league and its players, and the formation of the panels marks a shift for the NFL and NFLPA on topics that previously have been divisive for them.

“I think it’s a proud day for the NFL and the NFLPA to come together on these issues in a very public way,” Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, said in a phone interview. “I think it demonstrates the spirit of cooperation we have around our health and safety issues …. Both of these committees are about providing the best health care we can to players.”

The two committees being formed are a joint pain management committee and a comprehensive mental health and wellness committee. Both sides cautioned that the pain management committee is not a marijuana-focused committee. Its members will study a variety of pain-management issues and strategies for players, officials said. But the prospective use of marijuana for pain management by players will be among those issues examined, both sides said.

“We’re asking our pain management committee to bring us any and all suggestions,” Sills said. “We’ll look at marijuana.”

Marijuana remains on the league’s list of banned substances. Players are tested for it and can be suspended for positive tests. But some players and former players have said that marijuana helps to cope with the rigors of playing the violent sport and have called for the NFL to relax its standards in that area.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said in the past that the league would consider allowing players to use marijuana for pain management only if that practice were to be established as valid by medical and scientific experts. Goodell previously has said that such medical and scientific evidence has not yet reached the point at which a sufficiently convincing case can be made to allow players to use marijuana for pain management.

Each NFL team will appoint a pain management specialist by the 2019 season to work with players, the league and union said.

The NFL said in July 2017 that it had offered to work in tandem with the NFLPA to study the potential use of marijuana as a pain-management tool for players. The union did not immediately respond to that offer and was studying the issue through its own pain management committee.

DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, said in a January 2017 interview that the union was preparing a proposal to the league that would result in a “less punitive” approach to recreational marijuana use by players.

“How do you make sure that you address any potential addiction issue? Because I’ve read the literature on both sides,” Smith said then. “How do you deal with the fact that some people are using it purely recreationally and pivoting it to … people who are using it medicinally either as a pain eradicator or a stress-coping mechanism? So what we’ve decided to do is, to the best we can, look at it as related but nonetheless separate issues. Do I expect in the near future we are going to be presenting something to our board on the first issue? Yes.”

The league and union have begun talks about a new collective bargaining agreement. Their current labor deal runs through the 2020 season. Any significant changes to the sport’s marijuana policy could come within the context of those CBA negotiations. Or it could come via the two sides’ yearly deliberations about their drug policies.

The NFL and NFLPA said the committee that studies pain management also will receive reports from a prescription drug monitoring program “that will monitor all prescriptions issued to NFL players by club physicians and unaffiliated physicians.”

Sills said: “This is not out of step with what’s happening with medicine outside the NFL. This concept of prescription monitoring is happening throughout medicine, not just in the NFL.”

The NFLPA filed a grievance in May 2017 accusing the league and teams of conspiring to violate the terms of the CBA governing health and safety issues. That grievance arose from allegations of teams recklessly using opioids and other painkillers to treat players. The grievance pointed to a federal lawsuit against NFL teams that included the allegation that teams illegally stored, transported and dispensed medication.

“One of the outcomes of that (grievance) was to create something jointly that will generate far more trust,” a person with knowledge of the NFLPA’s view of the formation of the new medical committees said Monday. “I think this will lead to far more transparency. It will be a process that we will have to work to perfect. We’re both serious about it.”

As part of the establishment of the mental health and wellness committee, the league and union will mandate that each team have a clinician that spends eight to 12 hours per week at the team’s practice facility.

“This is a person who’s coordinating a network of providers,” Sills said.