In case you've failed to notice, big things are happening with the legal cannabis industry. After decades of languishing in the shadows and conducting tens of billions of dollars a year in black-market transactions, legal weed is stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
In Canada, the veil of recreational prohibition was officially lifted in October, while Mexico appears very close to becoming the third country worldwide to OK adult-use pot. Meanwhile, in the U.S., 33 states have waved the green flag on medical cannabis, along with over 40 countries around the world. Organic growth among legalized countries (and U.S. states), along with new countries legalizing cannabis in some capacity, is expected to turn this into an up-to-$75 billion-a-year industry by 2030.
The NFL and cannabis have never mixed
But not everyone is on board with the marijuana movement. Despite an all-time record 66% of Americans in Gallup's national survey this past October supporting the idea of a broad-based legalization of weed in the United States, nearly all collegiate and professional sports ban cannabis use from a recreational or medical perspective -- even in states where the drug is partially or fully legalized. Perhaps no ban on marijuana is higher profile than that of the National Football League (NFL), the most popular of the major sports in the United States.
The NFL and its random drug-testing policy has a laundry list of banned substances that can get a player suspended for four games, six games, 10 games, or even a full season or indefinitely. Marijuana, in any form, is among these banned substances. Thus, even though the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, and Detroit Lions play in states where medical and recreational pot is legal, any player -- regardless of team -- caught with cannabis in their system can be suspended by the league under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
Just how staunch has the NFL been on marijuana? Again, despite very clear favorability toward the drug among the American public, the NFL and CBS put their collective feet down just a few months ago by not allowing U.S.-focused multistate cannabis operator Acreage Holdings (ACRGF) to run an ad during the Super Bowl.
What's really interesting is that Acreage's ad didn't even mention its products or try to sell anything cannabis-related to consumers. Rather, it showed testimonials of people who'd tried conventional prescription medicines and had little success, only to find relief with medical cannabis. Acreage's minute-long ad ended with the proactive message, "The time is now," as a request for the public to call their elected representatives to act. But since cannabis isn't consistent with the NFL's message, the commercial was shot down.
However, things could be nearing a change.
The NFL is getting serious about pain management, and that may include marijuana
This past Monday, the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) announced in a press release that they've reached joint agreements designed to protect the health and safety of NFL players. The NFL and NFLPA will form a Joint Pain Management Committee designed to "establish uniform standards for club practices and policies regarding pain management and the use of prescription medication by NFL players as well as conduct research concerning pain management and alternative therapies."
In layman's terms, the press release, and additional analysis first reported by the Washington Post, conveys that the league is concerned about prescription opioid use among its players who are trying to cope with the pain of their hard-hitting jobs, and that a variety of options, including marijuana, are on the table.
In addition to researching pain management and monitoring all prescriptions issued to players, the NFL will be requiring teams to carry a pain management specialist and behavioral health team clinician in the 2019 season.
Make no mistake about it, this isn't the first time the NFL has danced around the idea of researching cannabis as an acute and chronic pain management tool. In August 2017, the NFL offered to work with the NFLPA on studying the uses of medical marijuana for pain management. However, the NFLPA failed to get back to the NFL's partnership request. DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA's executive director, had this to say regarding cannabis back in 2017:
I do think that issues of addressing it [cannabis] more in a treatment and less punitive measure is appropriate. I think it's important to look at whether there are addiction issues. And I think it's important to not simply assume recreation is the reason it's being used.
With both sides now on board, it looks as if marijuana, among a host of other possible pain management treatments, will be examined for use by NFL players -- and perhaps not a moment too soon, with a new CBA expected by 2020.
A step in the right direction, but hardly a guarantee of change
While this is clearly a step in the right direction for the cannabis movement, you'd be wise not to get too excited. That's because the NFL moves at a snail's pace when making policy changes, and studying medical marijuana as a pain management tool is a long way off from declaring cannabis an effective means of curbing pain.
There's no doubt that there are plenty of longtime NFL legends who support cannabis as a means to deal with acute and chronic pain. The "Comeback Kid," Joe Montana, is an active investor in the cannabis community, having recently participated in a round of seed funding for cannabis media company Herb. Additionally, former star running back Tiki Barber and Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson, both of whom are retired, have investments in the pot industry.
But the issue remains that medical testing of marijuana, in the eyes of the NFL and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has been lacking. Until there's sufficient evidence of medical benefits being provided by marijuana, it's very unlikely that we'll see any real changes take place.
As a reminder, the FDA currently notes only one accepted use of a cannabis-based product -- that being GW Pharmaceuticals' (GWPH) Epidiolex as a treatment for two rare types of childhood-onset epilepsy. After multiple phase 3 trials designed in cooperation with the FDA, GW Pharmaceuticals' cannabidiol-based oral drug led to a drop in seizure frequency from baseline of between 30% and 40% in both of its approved indications. With the exception of GW Pharmaceuticals' breakthrough pot product, no other ailment is viewed as being helped by cannabis or its cannabinoids in the eyes of the FDA. That's a problem, and it'll be tough for the industry -- and NFL/NFLPA -- to overcome. It's also a prime reason Congress hasn't officially changed its tune on cannabis.
What we've witnessed from the NFL this week is a start to a complex discussion that's unlikely to be resolved within the league, or in Washington, anytime soon.