Medical marijuana for NFL players? League to fund studies on cannabis for pain relief

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So the NFL kicked off February with quite the eventful week.

Tom Brady’s official retirement.

Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores’ class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in hiring practices.

(And the predictably immediate blanket denials from the franchises named in the lawsuit.)

But tucked below the blockbuster headlines was a little nugget of news that has the potential to transform how cannabis is viewed as an option for both overall pain management, and neuroprotection after concussions.

According to an Associated Press report, the NFL is spending $1 million dollars to fund studies being conducted by two teams of medical researchers at the University of California San Diego and University of Regina in Canada .

Did you know?: Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has ties to West Palm Beach's growth

More on Brian Flores: Dolphins' intention to tank in 2019 attacked ‘integrity of the game'

Related coverage: Mike McDaniel endorsed by Jets coach who also discusses Brian Flores' lawsuit

As NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said in the report: "We're always interested in trying to improve our approach and our treatment for acute and chronic pain in NFL players, and we always want to make sure that our players are receiving the most up-to-date medical consensus around any of these treatments. So, our burden of proof is really high for NFL players. Anytime we want to introduce a new therapy, we have to understand how that decision might impact their well-being and their performance. We know there's been a lot of interest in this area, but we did not feel like there was a lot of great solid research on the benefits of marijuana, CBD and treating acute and chronic pain. So, that's why we wanted to try to contribute to the body of science in this area."

Another interesting observation in the report came from prominent cannabis researcher Dr. Kevin Hill, director of addiction psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a co-chair of the NFL-NFLPA Joint Pain Management Committee, who explained why there's so little actual clinical research regarding the medical efficacy of cannabis.

Medical marijuana research explained

Former Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams is pictured speaking in Delray Beach in November 2020. The former NFL star, who was suspended twice by the NFL for his marijuana usage, launched his cannabis lifestyle brand called Highman last year. Last week, the NFL announced it was funding a three-year study to determine the medical efficacy of cannabis for pain relief and neuro protection.
Former Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams is pictured speaking in Delray Beach in November 2020. The former NFL star, who was suspended twice by the NFL for his marijuana usage, launched his cannabis lifestyle brand called Highman last year. Last week, the NFL announced it was funding a three-year study to determine the medical efficacy of cannabis for pain relief and neuro protection.

"One reason is the [DEA] scheduling of cannabis makes it harder to do this research, but the main reason is that stakeholders really aren't interested in advancing the science. You have states and companies that are making a lot of money selling cannabis products, selling CBD products right now. So they don't feel the need to prove the efficacy of these products, and millions of people are using them. So that's the predicament that we're in as health care professionals or organizations that really care about the health and safety of our constituents, the players in this case."

Hill explained that the goal of the research is to see if they can prove in a peer-reviewed clinical study whether or not cannabis should be a viable option for those in pain.

"We really want to know, do they work?," he said. "And every day I meet with patients who are interested in cannabinoids, and it's the same thing — we really don't know the answers to that. So it becomes a very complicated risk/benefit discussion. So I'm thrilled to be a part of something that actually is going to get toward finding some answers to the questions that everybody's been talking about for years. I also want to emphasize that this is the first step here. The NFL has done great research in other areas: concussions, musculoskeletal injuries, etc. We're not limited just to cannabinoids. We're interested in figuring out, are there ways that we can treat pain better? And so we're going to use this and look at this process and see if there's a way that we can improve this process, but continue to try to advance the science in the interest of players' health and safety."

Hill’s last statement about the NFL’s work in other health-related areas is significant.

NFL's cannabis studies to last three years

The NFL traditionally is not the most progressive institution — especially at the executive and management levels. But when it does shift its longtime positions on certain issues — chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), traumatic brain injuries, mental health, to name a few — the impact can resonate and be felt society-wide.

Especially with folks who otherwise wouldn’t be as inclined to adapt to new information.

It can be argued that the NFL’s emphasis on “concussion protocols” has permeated every level of all competitive sports — from youth leagues to interscholastic to intercollegiate and of course the pros.

The cannabis studies the NFL is funding are scheduled to last three years — so it will take a while to determine how transformative it will actually be.

But as Sills concluded to AP: “I think [the study’s conclusions] will be very generalizable. These products are already out there and in many cases, they're being widely used and widely marketed. So this research will help inform people as to which strategies may be beneficial and then those that may not be. And so I see this as being hugely impactful for the NFL, for all of the elite sport, but also sport at all levels across society."

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: NFL funds research on medical marijuana for player's pain relief