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The NFL Is Blowing Its Chance to Be a CBD Pioneer

By Sean Williams – Feb 2, 2020 at 11:41AM

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The National Football League is unlikely to allow its players access to medical marijuana or CBD anytime soon.

The past couple of years have been filled with marijuana milestones. In 2018, Canada became the first industrialized country in the world (in the modern era) to give recreational pot the green light. It was also the year we saw the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approve its very first cannabis-derived drug.

Then, last year, we saw Illinois do something that no other state had previously done: it legalized the consumption and sale of recreational cannabis entirely at the legislative level. Many marijuana stocks also soared to all-time highs during the first quarter.

Now, all eyes are on 2020 and what milestones might be experienced in the marijuana industry this year. One of those finger-crossing hopes has been that the National Football League (NFL) would loosen or adjust its policy on medical marijuana or cannabidiol (CBD) -- CBD being the nonpsychoactive cannabinoid best known for its medical benefits. Since the NFL is the world's most-watched sport, it would be viewed as a pioneer of new treatment options were it to allow its players the option of using CBD or medical cannabis as a pain-management tool. But according to a recent statements by the League, this now appears unlikely.

An assortment of cannabis leaves laid next to a football.

Image source: Getty Images.

The NFL had its chance to be a leader in CBD/cannabis reform...

The first real opportunity for change came about this past May, when the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) announced their intention to form a Joint Pain Management Committee that would examine alternative therapies and pain management treatments. The Committee's job would be to create uniform practices for all clubs regarding pain management and prescription medicine use. Among the many alternative therapies being weighed by the NFL and NFLPA was medical marijuana and CBD.

The fact that the Joint Pain Management Committee was considering CBD as a viable treatment option for its players was significant for a variety of reasons. For one, as noted, more eyeballs are on the NFL than any other sport. Even with Major League Baseball recently removing natural cannabinoids, such as marijuana and CBD, from its list of banned substances, NFL policy would be viewed as the real eye-opener among the public.

There was also the fact that GW Pharmaceuticals' (GWPH) Epidiolex was the aforementioned first approved cannabis-derived drug. GW Pharmaceuticals Epidiolex is a CBD-based oral therapy that was shown to have led to a statistically significant reduction in seizure frequency from baseline in multiple late-stage studies of patients with two rare types of childhood-onset epilepsy. This approval for GW Pharma demonstrated that CBD did, indeed, have a medical benefit, or so we thought. I'll touch on this further in a moment.

Lastly, President Trump's signing of the Farm Bill in Dec. 2018 paved the way for industrial hemp to be produced and hemp-derived CBD to be used in a variety of derivative products throughout the United States.

A vial of cannabinoid-rich liquid lying atop an assortment of cannabis flowers.

Image source: Getty Images.

...But it dropped a wide open opportunity

Though it looked as if real progress might be made, the NFL quickly stamped out any idea that its drug policy might be reformed anytime soon.

Despite being in the midst of crafting the next collective bargaining agreement, and therefore representing the perfect time to adjust/amend the League's drug policy, the NFL has issued something of a double whammy to those hoping to see CBD as an approved pain-management tool in the near future.

First, following an NFL-NFLPA joint meeting with manufacturers of CBD products, the NFL maintained that while the information presented was "educational," there's not enough research or information on CBD to establish a direct connection between CBD use and an improvement in pain management. The NFL took the time to remind everyone that marijuana and its associated cannabinoids remain illegal under the League's current drug policy.

The more damning statement came from two white papers that the NFL recently sent to its teams' medical staffs. While pointing out that limited evidence does exist that CBD may be effective for neuropathic pain, the NFL notes that most study sample sizes have been small, with short follow-up periods, which raises concerns about the validity of the findings of these studies.

An NFL press release notes that these white papers ended with the following statement: "Of course, cannabis remains a banned substance under the NFL Policy for Substances of Abuse. In addition, the potential problems associated with cannabis, from acute impairment of driving, addiction, and exacerbation of psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety, make it a substance to approach with extreme caution."

In short, the NFL dropped a wide open pass and won't be the CBD pioneer many wished it would be. 

A researcher in a white lab coat closely examining a beaker filled with cannabinoid-rich liquid.

Image source: GW Pharmaceuticals.

The NFL isn't alone in its skepticism of CBD

Of course, the NFL certainly isn't alone in its skepticism of CBD. The FDA announced in 2019 that it would be reviewing CBD as an additive to food and beverages, and as a dietary supplement. While most folks expected a relatively quick resolution that would allow CBD to be added to food and beverages, especially following its broadening use throughout most U.S. states, the FDA has taken an extremely cautious approach.

In fact, the nation's leading authority on food and prescription medicines provided a consumer update on Nov. 25 that spoke volumes about its current thoughts on CBD. This update stated that CBD has the potential to cause harm, and that there's a lot about CBD the agency just doesn't know (at least for now). In short, the FDA doesn't view CBD as a safe product, even though it approved GW Pharmaceuticals' lead drug as a treatment for two rare forms of epilepsy.

This move was telegraphed for people who've kept tabs on now-former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb's thoughts on the substance. Even with Gottlieb stepping down months before the FDA issued its consumer update, Gottlieb took to Twitter to announce his thoughts on CBD and its safety. According to the former FDA head, it often takes two or three years for the FDA to vet the safety of a product before it's added to the food chain. Because CBD is a considerably more complex substance that's associated with cannabis, he opined that it could take even longer for the agency to verify the safety of CBD.

To be perfectly clear, neither the FDA's consumer update in November nor the NFL's stance on CBD is going to thwart growth for CBD-based products in the United States. However, the ceiling for these products, as well as the diversity of CBD-infused products available for purchase, are certain to suffer as long as these organizations continue to put up a wall of resistance to CBD.

Sean Williams has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Twitter. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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