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Marijuana—a Rising Pain-Management Solution in the NFL

The growing acceptance of marijuana usage in the United States raises unique opportunities in the area of pain management in professional sports. This opportunity has prompted significant policy changes for the National Football League (“NFL), a league with 32 teams across 23 states and the District of Columbia. The NFL’s latest Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA) liberalizes the league’s policy concerning marijuana, opening the possibility for its use as a more widely available pain management strategy.


This shift offers hope for players battling opioid addiction or attempting to avoid further opioid exposure. Within the last decade, novel research has revealed that in states that legalized medical marijuana, the number of painkiller prescriptions fell significantly.[1] A 2016 study of states with medical marijuana programs found that during the years medical marijuana was available, doctors prescribed an average of 1,826 fewer doses of prescription painkillers.[2] Moreover, in a more NFL-specific context, anecdotal evidence from players buoys the hope that marijuana legalization might effectively replace opioids as a pain management tactic.


One such story is Ricky Williams, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back for the Texas Longhorns and an explosive backfield weapon on the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, and Baltimore Ravens.[3] In an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2016, Williams recounted the difference between his experience with marijuana and the opioids that the Saints physicians dosed him with following a rib fracture in 2001.[4] While the opioids made him feel numb and detached from the world— aggravating his social disorder— he claims that marijuana provided true relief.[5] Interestingly, his statistics for the following year seem to corroborate his claim. The following season, 2002, he admittedly smoked regularly— yet he posted a league-leading 1,853 rushing yards and played the entire 16-game season.[6] 


The need for benefits similar to those claimed by Ricky Williams has been underscored by the litigations in Dent v. NFL [7] and Evans v. Arizona Cardinals Football Club,[8] where current and former players alleged that the NFL goaded teams to overprescribe opioids as a method of helping players play through injury. Part of the Statement in the Dent case reads, “In May 2014, plaintiffs filed the instant putative class action, alleging that they were supplied an endless stream of powerful pain medications, such as opioids, Toradol, local anesthetics, and combinations thereof, in order to return players back to the game as quickly as possible instead of allowing them to rest and heal properly from serious football-related injuries.”[9] While the players’ claims in both cases were raised after the statute of limitations had tolled, the willingness of many players to litigate this issue indicates that this policy of the NFL was ripe for improvement.

The latest NFL CBA has responded to these concerns. By eliminating the previously instituted THC tests in April and August, the new NFL policy facilitates more player choice in pre-season pain-management.[10] Arguably even more remarkable than this shift, however, is the lax standard that will be applied to players’ marijuana consumption during the season. While the previous CBA treated any test that registered more than 35 nanograms of THC as a violation of league drug policy, the new approach would consider a test registering as high as 149 nanograms as not violating league policy. Indeed, the new CBA does not call for off-season tests for THC, and it allows in-season test results to contain THC under 150 nanograms.[11] This facilitates the potential of weekly use of marijuana since around 150 nanograms “suggests getting high in the previous week.”[12]     


As a result of these lenient policies, marijuana usage in the NFL is likely to increase. Corroborating this claim, a 2023 interview with Travis Kelce, who was suspended from NCAA participation for his marijuana use in college, intimates that, nowadays, many players smoke with impunity until the middle of July.[13] This reality will give NFL fans, coaches, and executives a front seat to watch the impact of marijuana as a pain-management start bearing itself out in future NFL seasons. Time will tell whether players actually benefit from this change or if it is yet another failed attempt at easing the burden that athletes feel in the gridiron.



[1] Alexandra Sifferlin, Can Medical Marijuana Help End the Opioid Epidemic?, TIME (July 28, 2016), https://time.com/4419003/can-medical-marijuana-help-end-the-opioid-epidemic/.

[2] Id.

[3] Robert Marvi, The Life and Career of Ricky Williams (Complete Story), Pro Football History (Jan. 19, 2022), https://www.profootballhistory.com/ricky-williams/.

[4] Ricky Williams Takes the High Road, SI Vault (July 18, 2016), https://vault.si.com/vault/2016/07/18/ricky-williams-takes-high-road.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Dent v. NFL, 384 F. Supp. 3d 1022 (N.D. Cal. 2019).

[8] Evans v. Ariz. Cardinals Football Club, LLC, 231 F. Supp. 3d 342 (N.D. Cal. 2017).

[9] Dent v. NFL, 384 F. Supp. 3d 1022, 1025 (N.D. Cal. 2019).

[10] Hazey Taughtme, NFL Weed Policy: Can Players Smoke Weed?, Black Cannabis Magazine (Mar. 12, 2023), https://blackcannabismagazine.com/nfl-weed-policy-can-players-smoke-weed/.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Michael David Smith, Travis Kelce Estimates 50% to 80% of NFL Players Use Cannabis, Pro Football Talk (June 29, 2023), https://www.nbcsports.com/nfl/profootballtalk/rumor-mill/news/travis-kelce-estimates-50-to-80-of-nfl-players-use-cannabis.

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