To hurry players back from injury, a cocktail of pain pills and anti-inflammatory injections are typically dispensed. Hydrocodone, Vicodin, Percocet, Toradol, Celebrex, Vioxx (before it was recalled for increasing the long-term risk of heart attacks and strokes) and so on. The widespread use of highly potent prescription pain drugs, some argue, has allowed the NFL to become the multibillion-dollar industry that it is today, but at a price.
A 2011 study by researchers at Washington University in St Louis found that former NFL players were four times more likely to abuse prescription painkillers than the general population. And more than seven in 10 players who used pain medications during their playing days went on to abuse them, though former offensive tackle Kyle Turley said he thinks that number is actually closer to 90%.
Turley and Jackson are among a group of former players trying to fight this epidemic of prescription drug abuse by lobbying the NFL to change its policy and allow players access to an alternative: medical marijuana.
Currently, marijuana, whether recreational or medical, is on the list of prohibited substances. All NFL players are tested once a year during the pre-season. “As long as you pass that test, you can medicate all year with marijuana,” Jackson said.
That’s what Jackson did. After tinkering with various cocktails of painkillers throughout his playing days, he decided that medical marijuana was the most effective for him.
“I feel like I can speak about this because I’ve tried everything,” Jackson said. “I’ve shot up HGH [human growth hormone], done the injections, tried the pills, tried marijuana. It’s not that I’m this big marijuana guy, it just helped my body the most.”
Jackson guessed that at least half of all active NFL players medicated with cannabis, an estimation corroborated by other former players such as Chris Kluwe.
Though some consider medical marijuana an excuse for healthy people to con their way into buying weed for recreational purposes – college football coaches have called player marijuana use an epidemic – ex-players insisted that was far from the truth. “It wasn’t about ‘I’m going to go get blazed and tear up the town.’ It was like, ‘Yeah, I smoked a bit and passed out on the couch because I felt like crap after practice,’” Kluwe told HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. The advent of other forms of cannabis, from topical creams to edibles to tinctures, can also help players target specific ailments.
Earlier this year, Turley founded the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, a group of former players dedicated to sharing their personal experience with medical marijuana and advocating for its inclusion in the NFL.
Turley said the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition has tried to reach out to the NFL league office on the issue but hasn’t received much response. “They’re just giving lip service like they were on concussions,” he said.
“Players need medication, like it or not, to go back on the field every week,” Jackson said. “Marijuana’s already keeping the game afloat. Roughly half of those guys are already using it every week. They have to keep it a secret, though. If they get caught they get fined or suspended. It’s a really uncompassionate stance to take.”