One by one, they entered a nondescript building on the eastern edge of town, 18,000 square feet with no signage out front. They came looking for relief. These nine former professional football players are part of the Denver Broncos Alumni Association. They played in nearly 700 NFL games combined and have enough aches and pains to keep an entire hospital staff busy.
“Every day, I wake up in pain, from my ankles to my neck,” said Ebenezer Ekuban, 40, who played defensive end for nine NFL seasons. “It’s part of the territory. I know what I signed up for.”
Retirement is a daily exercise in managing pain, which is what brought the men to the unmarked CW Hemp offices on a recent Friday for a tour and a firsthand lesson on the potential benefits of the marijuana plant. As the country’s discussion on the drug broadens, state laws change and public perception shifts, there’s a movement in football circles to change the way marijuana is viewed and regulated within the NFL, which still includes cannabis on its list of banned substances.
For decades, football players have treated pain with postgame beers, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and powerful prescription painkillers. The sport’s overreliance on drugs for pain management is the subject of a federal lawsuit and has sparked an investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Retired NFL players use opioids at four times the rate of the general population, according to one study, and marijuana advocates say there’s a safer, healthier alternative available.
No professional sport has so many outspoken proponents of marijuana’s medicinal qualities, but then again no sport is as closely associated with pain and injury .
“This pain is never going away. My body is damaged,” said Eugene Monroe, 30, who was released by the Baltimore Ravens last year three weeks after becoming the first active player to publicly call on the league to permit medical marijuana. “I have to manage it somehow. Managing it with pills was slowly killing me. Now I’m able to function and be extremely efficient by figuring out how to use different formulations of cannabis.”
There’s still no shortage of opposition to marijuana, and many on both sides of the debate agree that further research is needed. While many states have rolled back laws in recent years, early signs from the Trump administration suggest that the Justice Department isn’t ready to soften its stance. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last month that marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last week that he opposes players using the drug recreationally but is willing to listen to the league’s medical advisers on the potential value of medicinal marijuana. “To date, they haven’t said this is a change we think you should make that’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our players,” he said. “If they do, we’re certainly going to consider that.”
Most of the former Broncos on the tour in Boulder had been skeptics not long ago. But the more they learned, the more they’d come to think that some form of marijuana could be the alternative they’d been looking for, the answer for their sore backs, balky knees, pounding headaches and sleepless nights.
The former players put on protective glasses and prepared to tour the facility. “You all got a grow house in here?” asked one player. Another inquired about a free sample before the tour began, and another asked, “Will we be able to drive home when we’re finished?”
The room laughed. “It depends on what you had before this,” Jolly explained. The plant used to be called “hippie’s disappointment,” Vijay Bachus, the company’s site director, told the former players, “because it wouldn’t get you high.”
“It had high levels of CBD but low levels of THC. Nobody would be smoking it for recreational purposes,” he said, likening the THC levels to the amount of alcohol found in an O’Doul’s.
While researchers have found that THC might have some benefits — particularly with pain, anxiety or nausea — the science behind CBD is not as robust. But recent studies have found evidence that it can be effective treating everything from epilepsy and cancer to heart disease, diabetes, anxiety and schizophrenia. It can also act as an anti- inflammatory and a neuroprotectant, raising hopes it may be valuable in treating and preventing head injuries.
The exact effects of CBD are mostly anecdotal. It’s not classified as medicinal marijuana and is currently regulated as a hemp product. Manufacturers, like CW Hemp, are careful not to make too many medical claims. But increasingly, researchers are finding a correlation between marijuana use and a decreased dependence on opioids. The National Institute on Drug Abuse cites a pair of government-funded studies in saying “that medical marijuana products may have a role in reducing the use of opioids needed to control pain.” The federal institute cautioned that more research is needed.
After a few weeks of using CBD, Lang noticed he was sleeping much better. He still had headaches, but they weren’t as bad. Some of his other pains were still present, though.
Bachus led the group into a lab. The cannabis had soaked in alcohol, and an employee was squeezing liquid out of a mesh bag into a pan. “Just like squeezing the juice out of a tomato,” one of the players observed.
The lab has hosted football players in the past, including Kyle Turley, a former offensive lineman who says his football career led to a painkiller addiction, and Jake Plummer, a former quarterback who has become a vocal proponent of CBD.
Retired players Justin Sandy and Ebenezer Ekuban during their tour of the CW Hemp facilities. Said Ekuban: “I think in due time, the NFL is gonna realize that CBD is not a performance-enhancing drug.” (RM/Photo by Malek Asfeer/CW Hemp)
Ekuban played with Plummer for four seasons with the Broncos and had first heard about the potential benefits of cannabis from his former teammate. Ekuban retired in 2009 after nine seasons, and it wasn’t until five or six months had passed that he realized the aches weren’t going away.
Research has found that CBD increases a molecule called anandamide, which reduces pain and increases the production of neurons in the hippocampus region of the brain, which can impact mood and anxiety. Compared with a placebo, the National Academies of Science, Medicine and Engineering found “strong evidence” that marijuana is effective at dealing with chronic pain. Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana; 22 of the NFL’s 32 teams play their home games in those jurisdictions.
“I think in due time, the NFL is going to realize that CBD is not a performance-enhancing drug,” Ekuban said. “If anything, it helps with anxiety, helps with concentration, it helps with pain.”
“There is no doubt that players are using cannabis extensively, almost as a substitution therapy for other treatments that the NFL is offering that they perceive as more toxic or highly addictive,” said Sue Sisley, an Arizona-based physician who serves on the board of advisers for the Korey Stringer Institute, which has partnered with the NFL on health and safety issues. “For instance, these players obviously receive mega-dosages of opioids easily from their trainers and team docs. But when they want to seek out what they believe is a safer, less toxic alternative like cannabis, they’re fined and sanctioned.”
The NFL has indicated an interest in studying the issue but seems resistant to major changes. Goodell told ESPN Radio last week that marijuana is addictive and unhealthy and that he is not currently in favor of allowing players to use it recreationally.
“Listen, you’re ingesting smoke, so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say,” the league commissioner said. “It does have [an] addictive nature. There are a lot of compounds in marijuana that may not be healthy for the players long term. All of those things have to be considered. And it’s not as simple as someone just wants to feel better after a game.”
The NFL Players Association has formed a pain management committee to study the issue, and many expect marijuana to become a bigger discussion point in the near future. The union could urge the league to differentiate between recreational and medicinal use or push to lessen the penalties for a failed test. “We still think there can be a more therapeutic approach in the way we deal with marijuana in particular, and we’d like the league’s help with that, and we know owners feel that way, too,” said George Atallah, a union spokesman.
The current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in 2020, and both sides have indicated they might be willing to address the issue — either the testing, the legality or the penalties levied.
“I would hope that the NFL stands by what it says it stands for — player health and safety, first and foremost,” said Monroe, who since his retirement has emerged as football’s most prominent marijuana proponent. “If that statement is true, there’s enough info out there right now for the NFL to make a smart decision.”
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