Cannabis is a banned substance across all professional and amateur athletic leagues in the United States. If an athlete’s drug test turns up positive, and they are caught with marijuana in their system, they face career-ending suspension. But cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug; it is a therapeutic/medicinal one. The potential of medicinal marijuana for pain management has sparked an athlete-driven movement toward acceptance.
Professional Athletes Use Marijuana
It’s no longer a secret that professional athletes use medicinal cannabis. NFL and NBA players have publicly estimated that 80% of their fellow players use marijuana to manage pain, anxiety, and other issues. NFL running back Mike Jones is one example; he uses medicinal cannabis to circumvent opioid dependence prescribed for physical pain.
NFL players misuse opioids at a much higher rate than the general population, andtwo key predictors for opioid misuse are pain and concussions . The need for non-addictive pain treatment has even spawned the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, a collective of NFL players pushing for cannabis legalization and research. In response, the NFL agreed in 2017 to study the potential of marijuana for pain management.
Medicinal Marijuana for Athletes
There is little evidence supporting performance-enhancing benefits of cannabis . Increased heart rate, reduced cardiac output, and lowered coordination suggest that it hampers athletic performance . Cannabis does have potential as an all-natural medicine and therapeutic agent for athletes.
For example, the main non-psychoactive compound, cannabidiol (CBD), enhances bone fracture healing by catalyzing collagen crosslinking .For its analgesic properties, Ware et al (2018) suggests that cannabis could be an effective therapy for athlete pain management .It has been shown to alleviate neuropathic pain, such as that resulting from concussion injuries .Cannabinoids also have significant anti-inflammatory actions that are relevant to recovery and injury management .
Cannabis remains on World Anti-Doping Prohibited List for controversial reasons (e.g., some athletes in some sports find it reduces anxiety prior to performance). However, many professional athletes are now utilizing cannabis for its natural medicinal potential. Athletes with chronic and debilitating injuries –those who no longer fear drug tests and suspension – are the most outspoken.
- Cottler, L. B., et al. “Injury, pain, and prescription opioid use among former National Football League (NFL) players.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2011, 116/1-3/188-194. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2010.12.003.
- Gillman, A. S., et al. “Cannabis and Exercise Science: A Commentary on Existing Studies and Suggestions for Future Directions.” Sports Medicine. 2015,45/10/1357-1363. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0362-3.
- Campos, D. R., et al. “Marijuana as Doping in Sports.” Sports Medicine. 2003.33/6/395-399. doi:10.2165/00007256-200333060-00001.
- Kogan, N. M., et al.“Cannabidiol, a Major Non-Psychotropic Cannabis Constituent Enhances Fracture Healing and Stimulates Lysyl Hydroxylase Activity in Osteoblasts.” Journal of Bone and Mineral Research. 2015, 30/10/1905-1913. doi:10.1002/jbmr.2513.
- Ware, M. A., et al. Cannabis and the Health and Performance of the Elite Athlete. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.2018, 28/5/480-484. doi:10.1097/jsm.0000000000000650
- Lee G et al. “Medical Cannabis for Neuropathic Pain.” Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2018, 1/22(1)/8. doi: 10.1007/s11916-018-0658-8.
- Burstein, S. H., & Zurier, R. B.”Cannabinoids, Endocannabinoids, and Related Analogs in Inflammation.” The AAPS Journal. 2009,11/1. doi:10.1208/s12248-009-9084-5.