By Tom Huddleston Jr.
August 3, 2017

The National Football League’s chief medical officer believes it’s “really important” for the league to research whether to reverse its policies that prohibit players from using marijuana to treat and managing pain.

That’s what Vanderbilt University neurosurgeon Allen Sills told The Washington Post in an interview this week. Sills, who took over as the NFL’s chief medical officer earlier this year, said the NFL takes a “holistic” approach to players’ health and safety issues. “Certainly the research about marijuana and really more particularly cannabinoid compounds as they may relate to the treatment of both acute and chronic pain, that is an area of research that we need a lot more information on and we need to further develop,” Sills told the Post.

The neurosurgeon’s comments came just days after it was first reported that the league sent a letter to the NFL Players Association last month offering to join forces on researching marijuana’s potential as a pain management tool. Sills referred to those reports in the interview, noting the NFL’s desire to work with the NFLPA to learn more about marijuana’s potential for treating injured players.

Last fall, it was reported that the NFLPA is actively researching using medical marijuana to manage players’ pain rather than prescription opioids. At the time, the NFL itself still maintained that the league was listening to the opinions of medical experts with respect to the use of marijuana to manage pain, but the league had not yet reached a consensus on the issue. So far, the NFLPA has not responded publicly to the NFL’s letter offering cooperation on marijuana research.

In January, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said the association was putting together a proposal that would ask the NFL to reconsider what has been a relatively strict prohibition on marijuana use by players in the league. The Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA explicitly bans marijuana use by players, with positive tests for the drug leaving players subject to fines or suspensions. Even if both sides work together to study marijuana’s potential for pain management, it’s possible the NFL would not alter its drug policies until the current CBA expires in 2021. But the league’s letter on the subject appears to be something of an olive branch to the players’ union in the wake of criticism over the NFL’s harsh stance on marijuana.

(The NFL’s reported letter to the NFLPA also came as the league faces more fallout from a new study offering further evidence of a link between playing football and the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.)

NFL players such as former Pro Bowl running back Ricky Williams have lobbied the league to change its marijuana policies, with those calls growing louder as a growing number of U.S. states have legalized the drug in some form over the past several years. In May, the NFL denied reinstatement to former Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon, who has not played in the league since 2014 due to a series of suspensions for marijuana use.


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