After a series of lawsuits, the National Football League decided to earmark $100 million to study head trauma. However, not a single cent has been spent on medical marijuana research, and that is a shame. At the same time, the hype around the lawsuits has brought significant attention to the prevention and treatment of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in sports. So, what is the role of marijuana in this story?
First, let us figure out what a concussion actually is.
A concussion is a minor traumatic brain injury caused by a blow or bump to the head. Our brain is made of soft tissue, cushioned by spinal fluid and encased in the protective shell of the skull. When a concussion occurs, the impact can jolt the brain. Sometimes, it literally moves around in the head. Traumatic injuries often cause damage to the blood vessels, bruising, and injuries to the nerves. As a result, the brain does not function normally.
Patients who get concussions may lose equilibrium, fall unconscious, experience headaches and body pain (the result of inflammation, as brain cells swell following the trauma); their vision may be compromised. Tremor and short-term memory loss are also common companions of a concussion.
The anecdotal evidence in favor of CBD—a non-psychoactive marijuana compound also known as cannabidiol—is persuasive. The available research on CBD is limited but promising: numerous studies showed that it could protect brain cells from injury as well as promote cell growth, offsetting chronic traumatic encephalopathy (brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas and linked to depression and suicide). Additionally, CBD is known to have anti-inflammatory properties and relieve pain. These medical benefits are especially of interest to the NFL players: first, studies have shown that THC and CBD are both effective pain relievers, and second, a nonaddictive pain reliever is certainly of interest to a league currently being sued by ex-players for negligent and harmful distribution of opiates.
Some companies recognizing the potential of cannabis are diving into marijuana research in an attempt to make drugs that would prevent brain damage from a concussion before it happens.
While much of the research focused on CBD, preclinical studies showed that its psychoactive friend, THC, might be helpful as well. In 2014, a study by Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in California showed that patients with traumatic brain injuries who had detectable levels of THC in their systems at the time of the accident were less likely to die from brain trauma.
In the light of that, some university researchers have already set out to test a marijuana-based drug.
In 2014, Lester Grinspoon, an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University, wrote an open letter to the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell advising him to consider allowing marijuana as a treatment for post-concussion syndrome. He pointed out that although the NFL offered former players $765 million to settle a lawsuit charging the organization “with knowingly concealing a link between pro football and traumatic injury,” this huge figure was nothing in comparison to the human toll paid in terms of pain and untimely death among players. The professor urged the NFL to look closer at marijuana and fund research to determine whether the plant can help.
Earlier this year, the Realm of Care supporters, including an ex-Baltimore Ravens tackle Eugene Monroe and former NFL quarterback Jake Plummer, initiated the meeting with the NFL's medics in order to discuss CBD-based treatment and cannabis testing policies for players. The NFL Player Association said that both parties to the Policy (the NFL and the NFL Player Association) sought guidance from the independent medical professionals who administered the policy, and no change in the substance's status as a Schedule I drug had been recommended by those medics. And, of course, no real plan was set forward because of the collective bargaining agreement listing marijuana among the NFL's banned substances.
The NFL and NFLPA have a staunch policy prohibiting cannabis use. No player can cross the NLF's allowable limit of 35 nanograms of activated THC per milliliter of urine. In 2014, the league and the players association agreed to alter the policy are raise the THC threshold from 15 nanograms to 35 nanograms per milliliter. Players are tested only once in the offseason, but violators could be subjected to additional random tests and penalties that range from fines to 1 year of suspension without pay.
Besides the NFL, there is no other professional league where athletes could get popped for marijuana. For comparison, the Olympics' allowable limit is 150 ng/ml, and violators face suspensions ranging from 3 months to 1 year.
For many professional players, pain is a constant companion. The headaches and body pain that accompany a concussion are the result of inflammation, as brain cells swell following the trauma. As much as sportsmen try to avoid painkillers, there are times when they need the assistance.
Pills and injections are the norm in professional sports, as well as long-term concerns. Players have often talked about the unwelcome side effects, such as depression, lethargy, the risk of opiate addiction.
A 2011 study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that more than half of all retired NFL players used opioids during their career, and 71 percent of them reported abuse. Furthermore, unlike marijuana, opioids—morphine, oxycodone, heroin—can cause a fatal overdose.
Certainly, not every player experiences terrible pain, but with the heightened awareness of the long-term damage football does to the mind and body, many ex-sportsmen are anxious in searching for alternative ways to not only treat injuries but also prevent the onset of additional symptoms.
Plummer and Monroe, as well as many other NFL players, believe in the efficacy of CBD as a powerful and safe painkiller and think that the league players should be allowed to use it. That is why they have teamed with CW Botanicals and its non-profit partner, the Realm of Caring, in an effort to raise over $100,000 to fund initial studies of CBD. CW Botanicals is the Colorado-based company manufacturing a widely-known hemp extract called Charlotte's Web. It is legally confirmed that the product has no more than 0.3 percent THC, so the NFL players can use it with no fear to test positively.
Of course, the best way to ensure any treatment is effective and safe is to put it through the FDA's drug approval process. Currently, a few pharmaceutical companies are trying to promote drugs that harness the neuroprotective properties of CBD. For example, Kannalife is raising B funding with the goal to launch clinical trials on CBD and CBD synthetic. GW Chemicals announced positive results in the phase III clinical trials of Epidiolex, the CBD-based medicine for treating Dravet syndrome.
Plummer hopes that football players will soon be armed with enough clinical evidence of the benefits of CBD to initiate a discussion with the NFL. And he hopes for a real change, a change that will allow players to choose the safest and most effective treatment for themselves.