NFL, Are You Ready For Some . . . Medical Marijuana?

By:  John Becker on February 4, 2014


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Super Bowl XLVIII featured a unique matchup between teams from the two U.S. states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use—Colorado and Washington.[1]  Thus, apart from the media’s coverage of Peyton Manning’s uncertain legacy, the potency of the Broncos’ record-breaking offense, and the intensity of the Seahawks’ league-leading defense, it was unsurprising that medical marijuana was a popular topic of discussion in the weeks leading up to the matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.

Public acceptance of marijuana use is at an all-time high, but the recent Super Bowl sparked some debate.  A recent Gallup poll revealed that a majority of Americans felt that marijuana should be legal.[2]  In fact, medical marijuana is currently legal in twenty states, as well as the District of Columbia.  As previously mentioned, Colorado and Washington recently legalized the drug for recreational use.[3]  Nevertheless, NFL players, including those from states that have legalized marijuana, are prohibited from using the drug for any purpose.[4]  Under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”), players who test positive for marijuana face the threat of suspension.[5]

Critics of the NFL believe this prohibition on the use of medical marijuana by players is inconsistent with the NFL’s increasing emphasis on player safety.  In the medical community, marijuana is considered to be a “safe and effective pain reliever.”[6]  In fact, studies indicate that the active ingredient in marijuana could help to protect the brain from the effects of head injuries.[7]  Thus, considering football is a sport where players constantly manage pain and face the risk of brain injury, the NFL has been called upon to lead the discussion of medical marijuana as a therapeutic alternative for athletes.[8]

Recently, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke about the marijuana debate, stating that the NFL will continue to evaluate the drug’s potential as a pain reliever.[9]  The Commissioner stated that the league is “‘not actively considering’” a change in the league’s drug policy, but that making such a change is “‘something that [the NFL] would never take off the table.’”[10]  Among the league’s concerns with marijuana is evidence of the drug’s negative effects, such as addiction.[11]

Ultimately, the league has taken a calculated approach to the marijuana debate.  At a time when player safety is of the utmost importance to the NFL, the league would be wise to thoroughly research the potential costs and benefits of pain relief alternatives, such as marijuana.[12]  However, marijuana remains a federally controlled substance that is illegal in the majority of U.S. states.[13]  Additionally, a drug policy that permits players to use marijuana would have to be incorporated into the CBA.[14]  Considering that only three seasons have passed since the players and owners agreed upon the current CBA, which runs through 2021, it would appear that players cannot expect to be permitted to use marijuana as a pain reliever any time soon.[15]

[1] See Eric Adelson, Strong Reasons Why NFL’s Roger Goodell Was Correctly Cautious on Medicinal Marijuana Issue, Yahoo! Sports (Jan. 31, 2014, 2:18 PM), (discussing Commissioner Goodell’s handling of medical marijuana debate in annual “State of the League” address).

[2] See Howard Bryant, Smoke Screen: It’s Time for the NFL to Embrace a New Pain Reliever: Marijuana, ESPN The Magazine, Dec. 23, 2013, available at (noting Gallup poll revealed fifty-eight percent of participants voted in favor of legalization of marijuana, marking first time in American history).

[3] See Dan Graziano, Carroll Weighs in on Medicinal Pot, ESPN (Jan. 27, 2014, 4:55 PM), (discussing contention of Pete Carroll, coach of Seattle Seahawks, that NFL should research potential health benefits of marijuana for players).

[4] See Bryant, supra note 2 (noting marijuana is on NFL’s banned substance list, and no player has received an exemption to use drug for medicinal purposes).

[5] See John Breech, Roger Goodell Doesn’t Rule Out Medical Marijuana Use by Players, CBS Sports (Jan. 8, 2014, 5:08 PM), (noting marijuana is prohibited under NFL’s substance abuse program).

[6] See Bryant, supra note 2 (stating marijuana “is almost universally accepted in the medical community as a safe and effective pain reliever”).

[7] See Adelson, supra note 1 (noting evidence does not amount to “direct causation”); see also Jeffrey Carpenter, Study: THC-Like Drug Helps Brain Injuries, ABC News (Oct. 5, 2013), (discussing research showing “cannabinoid, similar to the active ingredient found in marijuana and produced in the brains of many animals, protects mice from brain injury”).

[8] See Bryant, supra note 2 (“[M]arijuana is a legitimate pain reliever—especially for the migraines that can be a byproduct of head trauma—and is far less dangerous and potentially addictive than, say, OxyContin, it is almost immoral to deny players the right to use it.”).

[9] See Adelson, supra note 1 (suggesting NFL’s vow to consider allowing players to use medical marijuana is encouraging, considering league’s troubling history of failing to spread awareness about effects of head trauma).

[10] See Jane McManus, Roger Goodell Talks Drug Policy, ESPN (Jan. 31, 2014, 7:54 PM), (noting Commissioner Goodell statement that NFL’s medical experts have not suggested that NFL needs to alter its drug policy at this time).

[11] See Adelson, supra note 1 (noting Commissioner Goodell considers positive impact of medical marijuana to be “‘questionable’”).

[12] See Graziano, supra note 3 (noting Seattle Seahaks coach Pete Carroll recently stated “‘[r]egardless of what other stigmas might be involved,” the NFL should look into the health benefits of medical marijuana “‘because the world of medicine is doing this.’”).

[13] See Adelson, supra note 1 (noting Commissioner Goodell could have avoided medical marijuana issue by “pointing to the fact that marijuana is a federally controlled substance and illegal in most states”); see also Graziano, supra note 3 (“[T]he federal government and interstate commerce laws still consider [marijuana] illegal and prohibit it from being transported across state lines.”).

[14] See McManus, supra note 10 (noting preliminary discussions about medical marijuana have taken place between league and players’ union).

[15] See Breech, supra note 5 (discussing recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and illegality of drug under federal law and its prohibition under CBA).


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