An interview that aired on CNN Sunday night between Mike James, an NFL running back for the Detroit Lions, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the network’s chief medical correspondent, is highlighting one of the main arguments for the use of medical cannabis: for individuals looking for pain relief that want to stay away from opioids, pot may be the best option. As we collectively stare down the staggering opioid crisis currently gripping almost every corner of our country, many are seeing medicinal marijuana as an alternative. Out of all of the arguments that have been put forth for the legalization of medical cannabis, the argument that marijuana can be used as a viable and safe alternative for opioids, is perhaps one of the strongest.
Back in 2013, James got banged up during a Monday night football game and, as is par for the course, he was prescribed opioid pain killers. And, as is also par for the course, he quickly developed a dependency on the drugs. In an attempt to get off of pain killers, James turned to medical marijuana. “My pain subsided,” James told Dr. Gupta. “I never had something where I could be coherent and still have pain relief.”
However, marijuana is, of course, a Schedule I substance, and banned by the NFL and the NFL Players Association. There is one way to get around this policy: seek a “therapeutic use exemption,” which indicates that a player needs to use a certain substance to treat a medical condition. Last month, James became the first player in the NFL to file for a therapeutic exemption for cannabis. And last Thursday, he got a letter from the NFL saying that his exemption application had been denied.
It is no secret that professional athletes play through pain on a routine basis, and they are frequently given a cocktail of pain-killers to continue playing at the high level that is demanded of them. (Everyone remembers when Jon Voight was giving pain pills to Paul Walker during the high school-football documentary, Varsity Blues, right? That was 1999.) The NFL has come under particular scrutiny as of late, with new evidence showing that the endless concussions and years of physical stress that NFL players endure is not good for the long-term use of the human body. The journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence published a study back in 2011 that found 52% of former NFL players reported using opioids during their career, and 71% of them reported misusing those drugs. Those are big numbers. And that was seven years ago.
James, like many athletes in a similar position, didn’t think twice about taking the pills that were given to him, nor did he worry about addiction. Why? Because the pills were given to him by a doctor. And his livelihood, his career, and his dream of continuing to play football, were contingent on him being able to manage his pain. So he became another player in a game who’s ending is painfully familiar: patient gets prescribed opioids by the doctor, patient takes said opioids to treat pain, patient finds himself addicted to said opioids.
It was his wife, Aubrey, who suggested that perhaps James look to marijuana to help treat his pain. “I thought, ‘Weed? No, that’s a street drug.’ I didn’t even want to hear what it had to offer,” James said in the interview. But after he tried it, he said “I felt like I was beginning a new life.”
It is interesting to note that Mike James does not like drugs, has no desire to be a drug addict, and in fact has spent much of his life trying to stay away from drugs. “Drugs tore up my family,” James said in the interview. It is the framework around these two substances that leaves one scratching their heads. Marijuana, that’s bad, that’s a “street drug.” Opioids? Well those are fine, they were prescribed by a doctor. Makes all the difference in the world.
But, again, marijuana is banned by the NFL. Despite the fact that he was using cannabis to treat pain caused by an injury he received while playing the for NFL, in August James took a routine NFL drug test, and he tested positive for marijuana. Suddenly, his career was on the line. This lead to him filing his therapeutic use exemption.
“This is the first active player who’s been willing to put their professional career on the line, to openly admit that they not only have been using this cannabis but need it to function at the highest level,” said Dr. Sue Sisley, a physician and board member of the non-profit Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. “Mike’s case is such a perfect example of why cannabis needs to be made available, because he’s really not a candidate for opioids. So this is a safe alternative for him.”
As of this writing, the jury is still out on what path James will take going forward. We’re hoping that he is allowed to use cannabis to treat his pain. It seems completely bananas that a player would be reprimanded for using one substance and not another to treat their pain. But hey, that’s where we are currently. As for James? “I’m not ashamed of it,” James said, in reference to his marijuana use. “I’m not embarrassed about it. It is something that I will continue to use, because I have a life to live.” Good for you, Mike. We’re pulling for you.
Check out the full documentary below.