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For some NFL players, ban on medical marijuana is a real pain

July 4, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Percocet or pot? An increasing number of Americans are choosing to use legalized cannabis instead of highly addictive opioids to control chronic pain but not in the NFL where a blanket ban is still in place. A group of retired players are working toward changing that, knowing firsthand what it's like to live on pills. Katie Couric of Yahoo News reports.
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JOHN YANG: But, first, a pair of NFL players are challenging the league to reconsider its policy on pot when it comes to medical use and particularly to treat pain.

Katie Couric of Yahoo News sat down with the players. Here’s an extended excerpt of her story.

EUGENE MONROE, NFL Offensive Lineman: Cannabis is a substance that has been stigmatized for years, and that’s why I’m so adamant about educating people on the health benefits of it.

KATIE COURIC: Eugene Monroe made headlines when he became the first active player in the NFL to publicly call for the league to change its policy on pot, which is on the banned substance list.

EUGENE MONROE: I would like to know why the NFL is maintaining such a stern position of the medical value of cannabis when, countrywide, doctors are prescribing it to their patients.

KATIE COURIC: Monroe, who was recently cut from the Baltimore Ravens, believes using marijuana for pain relief can be a much safer alternative to prescription drugs like oxycodone.

EUGENE MONROE: What I noticed was that former players would openly speak about their experience of being addicted to opioids that they were prescribed by their team doctors.

JIM MCMAHON, Former NFL Quarterback: I was eating 100 Percocets a month during my career, even up until five years after I retired. And it just made me feel bad. It made my head fuzzy. It screws up your insides.

KYLE TURLEY, Former NFL Offensive Lineman: The rage episodes, all of these things, vertigo, were mounting so much greater under the pill prescription.

KATIE COURIC: But when former NFL lineman Kyle Turley turned to marijuana for relief, he says everything changed.

KYLE TURLEY: I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for cannabis, period. Cannabis has saved my life. I don’t think of suicide anymore. That’s a big thing. You would think the NFL would want to address that a little bit more.

KATIE COURIC: The NFL told us its policy that covers marijuana is collectively bargained and is a joint NFL/NFL Players Association program, adding: “We are guided by medical advisers. They have not indicated a need to change.”

ROGER GOODELL, NFL Commissioner: We believe it’s the correct policy for now in the best interest of our players and the long-term health of our players. I don’t foresee a change in that clearly in the short term.

KATIE COURIC: What do you want from the NFL?

EUGENE MONROE: I want the NFL to take a serious look at the medical value of cannabis, which they currently deny. I want them to stop testing players, and stop punishing players for consuming cannabis.

KATIE COURIC: Dr. Staci Gruber studies marijuana’s effect on the brain.

DR. STACI GRUBER, Director of Mind Program, McLean Hospital: Professional athletes who are in pain much of the time, the question is, how can we best treat them? Twenty-five states plus D.C. now have full medical marijuana laws. Another 18 have partial medical marijuana laws. The question is, what does it do? Is it all good? All bad? Or somewhere in between?

KATIE COURIC: Derrick, this is the first time you’re speaking out about this.

DERRICK MORGAN, Linebacker, Tennessee Titans: I think that for the NFL to say that cannabis doesn’t benefit the long-term health of its players without actually having gone and done the research, I don’t think that’s accurate, that’s an accurate statement.

KATIE COURIC: Derrick Morgan, a linebacker with the Tennessee Titans, has joined forces with Eugene Monroe. Both believe marijuana may not only be a safer alternative for pain relief, but could also be effective for dealing with the symptoms of CTE.

DERRICK MORGAN: You hear all the research and the news about the CTE, the traumatic brain injury, and, as a player, you take notice of that.

KATIE COURIC: CTE, the neurodegenerative disorder that has been discovered in the brains of many deceased NFL players, was the focus of the movie “Concussion.” While the league acknowledges the findings, it believes additional research is needed to determine potential causes of the disease.

Monroe believes a compound found in marijuana may even help prevent CTE.

EUGENE MONROE: The U.S. government has a patent on cannabinoids that say they protect the brain in the event of a traumatic injury, which is concussions. And I have been an unfortunate recipient of numerous concussions throughout my career, and quite fearful of the potential impact later in my life.

DR. STACI GRUBER: I think there’s been some extraordinary compelling pre-clinical work that’s demonstrated CBD, cannabidiol, is incredibly effective at helping to limit the extent of brain injury, which is really very intriguing and promising.

DERRICK MORGAN: I feel like the NFL has a responsibility to look into it, to delegate time and money to research this for its players. Given how much influence that the NFL has on society, I think that it would help the greater good. There’s a lot of people suffering and there’s a lot of people that can benefit from cannabis as a medical treatment.

KATIE COURIC: At the Realm of Caring Foundation in Colorado, Heather Jackson and her team are passionate advocates for medical marijuana.

HEATHER JACKSON, CEO, Realm of Caring: Families need information, they need dosing help, they need to know what the science is, what the research would suggest, and that’s where we fill in the gap.

KATIE COURIC: Jackson helped start the nonprofit after turning to cannabis to save her son.

HEATHER JACKSON: My son Zaki has a rare catastrophic form of early childhood epilepsy called Doose syndrome. His seizures started when he was four months old, and by the time he was 5, he had over 500,000 seizures. I gave him his first dose on July 19, 2012, and he went 48 hours with no seizures.

KATIE COURIC: She says her son is now seizure-free after incorporating a cannabis cocktail known as Charlotte’s Web, which contains a high concentration of CBD.

EUGENE MONROE: That’s why I’m a proponent of researching this to find out exactly which pathways this is affecting people, and this is giving people their lives back.

KATIE COURIC: Monroe has donated $80,000 through Realm of Caring to fund two research studies that will explore the impact of cannabinoid therapies on the long-term health of NFL players.

MARCEL BONN-MILLER, University of Pennsylvania: Cannabis is not cannabis is not cannabis. It’s made up of 130 different chemical compounds, some of which may have benefits for these folks and some of which may not. So it’s really important to try to understand specifically what could help.

KATIE COURIC: The NFL is not involved in the studies, but representatives from the league did hold a conference call with the lead researchers, indicating they are interested in learning more.

JOHN YANG: Later this week, we will have a report from Miles O’Brien about research into medical marijuana, and why patients are pushing for its use. That’s our Leading Edge science story on Wednesday.

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