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Athletes and Cannabis: A Better Way to Manage Pain

As cannabis legalization efforts gain popularity around the nation (5 states are voting to legalize recreational cannabis and 2 more for medical marijuana in the upcoming November elections), the attitude towards marijuana is clearly shifting among all population demographics. In fact, according to this Washington Post article, middle aged parents are more likely to smoke weed than their teenage children. Even further, an alarming number of current and former athletes are speaking out about the benefits of cannabis. Now, this might come as a shocker to many people unfamiliar with the power of the plant. “Doesn’t weed just make you confused and sleepy? I mean look at most stoners.”, you might say. Well, quite bluntly, some of the world’s top athletes would be quite offended by those remarks.


Michael Phelps broke headlines in 2009 when a British newspaper published a picture of him blatantly ripping a marijuana bong on a South Carolina college campus just months after winning 8 gold medals during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The incident, which Phelps takes full responsibility for, came with some pretty serious consequences. Even though the most decorated olympic athlete of all time had never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs or steroids, Phelps lost his Kellogg’s sponsorship and was suspended for 3 months by USA Swimming.


Had the incident taken place today, in 2016, following 12 more olympic medals he would score since the 2008 incident, Michael Phelps’ self medication may have been met with a different reaction. Following the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) reviewed their longstanding drug policy which had forbidden any athlete to use cannabis at any time. As USA Today reports, “WADA recently amended its rules on cannabis, raising the threshold for a positive test from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 150 ng/ml. Ben Nichols, a spokesperson for WADA, said the raising of the threshold is meant to catch only athletes who smoke during the period of a competition. The drug isn't prohibited out of competition.” So in the end, Phelps would have probably been let off the hook, and it is a shame that this policy went into place just after his olympic career ended following the games. Still though, after winning 28 olympic medals becoming the most decorated olympian of all time AND dodging discriminatory international anti-cannabis laws all the while, Michael Phelps is a champion on many levels.


By now Michael Phelps’ story has been well circulated and even the most anti-drug enthusiasts can’t deny the fact that cannabis did not slow Phelps down a single bit. Other athletes in other sports face different challenges though. There is intensified media speculation about the role of concussions and the severe brain injuries that result from high impact collisions during NFL football games. The Hollywood blockbuster, Concussion, starring Will Smith, and based off the scientific findings of doctor Bennet Omalu, explored the nature of brain injuries and the deteriorating quality of life many athletes experience during the latter parts of their football careers and thereafter due to a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The links between repetitive brain injuries sustained during NFL games and the disease are tragic. Junior Seau, the all-pro linebacker for the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots, committed suicide in 2012 just two months after retiring from an immaculate NFL career. There didn’t seem to be any apparent motive for his shocking death, except that CTE was detected in his brain. What is even more remarkable, is that Seau must have known something was damaged in his brain. To kill himself, Seau shot himself in the heart perhaps in order to preserve his brain for science. Just a year prior, another former NFL player, Dave Duerson, shot himself in the chest and requested that his brain be studied in his suicide note. Following his death, CTE was found in Duerson's brain as well. The sacrifices these men gave to the betterment of the sport and medicine aren't going unnoticed among other NFL players, past and present.


Today, many NFL players are speaking out about the benefits of cannabis and traumatic brain injury such as concussions in an attempt to save other players from the same fate as Junior Seau and others battling with the same invisible condition. Football is a multibillion dollar industry in the United States, even without the seemingly exorbitant salaries of some players, and much of that accumulated wealth is at the expense of the health of the players. Sure, each player makes a choice for their career, to step on the field everyday, and maybe even to deliver the injury-causing, crushing hit to the head that might stop a game winning touchdown. But how well protected are these players for their work? After all, it is a game to millions of viewers worldwide but to these players, it’s serious work that provides families with financial stability. That stability really isn’t stable at all if players are at risk of deadly CTE during and after their career. This is the case that many NFL players are pitching to league executives in an attempt to influence a change in drug policy to allow more self-guided pain management.


Former Arizona Cardinal and Denver Bronco quarterback Jake Plummer is one of these outspoken athletes urging the NFL to consider cannabis as an alternative treatment for pain management. After requiring several surgeries from injuries sustained in his 10 seasons as an NFL quarterback, he recognizes the need to minimize opioid dependence among NFL players. Plummer himself has found great success in treating his past injuries with CBD dominant cannabis treatment. Currently he is working alongside doctors and even medical marijuana dispensaries to persuade NFL executives and the NFL Players Association to allow players to consume cannabis. It is currently strictly forbidden for players to consume any form of marijuana at any time. However, many players feel that the regenerative power of cannabinoids may help prevent CTE.  Denver Broncos fans know the consequences of the NFL's drug policy all too well. Our defensive pride-and-joy, Von Miller, was suspended 6 games to begin the 2013 NFL season for violating the league’s drug policy on cannabis. Nearly all NFL teams have had an iconic player go down for violating the senseless policy, merely for self medicating away from the severe side-effect and dependence-inducing power of prescription pain pills. Ricky Williams, LeGarrette Blount, Le’Veon Bell, the list goes on… In 2015 a total of 19 players were suspended for a total 70 games (an average of nearly 4 games per person) for violating the league’s policy on cannabis.


Football isn’t the only sport on the cusp of altering their anti-drug policy to allow cannabis use. In fact, the NHL doesn’t even include cannabis on its list of banned substances. For professional basketball, the NBA claims that it is more interested in halting the use of performance enhancing steroids than marijuana. NBA commissioner, Adam Silver has said on the subject, “Marijuana testing is something that’s collectively bargained with the players’ association, and we adjust to the times.”


We are entering the ski season here in the high country and that means a lot of proactive self medication. Skiing and snowboarding seem like sports more apt to the use of cannabis, as it is basically surfing downhill on snow (what stoner can’t enjoy that?). However, many famous athletes on the slopes have had career ending consequences for violating substance abuse policies. Take Ross Rebagliati for instance. He won the first olympic gold medal in 1998 for snowboarding. He then nearly lost that medal after testing positive for marijuana. Since then he’s been an outspoken advocate for the use of cannabis by athletes. As this USA Today article quotes, “Now 42, Rebagliati believes that changing attitudes toward marijuana — it's now legal for medicinal purposes in Canada and 14 U.S. states — justifies the drug's removal from the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of banned substances.”


At Green Dream we believe in empowering all athletes, especially when it involves homeopathic and alternative health care regiments in replacement of opioid pain medications. Cannabis has very few side effects, none of which are lethal, and it has even shown great promise in regenerating cell tissue, bone structure and enhancing immunity while acting as a powerful antioxidant. Whether or not cannabis is “performance enhancing” is another question: the dominant side effects of cannabis are hunger and sleepiness, not exactly the formula for world-record swim times. Then again, if we look at the extensive list of all-star athletes who have used cannabis regularly, it can at the very least be of great aid to athletes of all sports and levels of competition.

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