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As More States Legalize Marijuana Use, NFL Wrestles With Whether They Should Too

Feb 2, 2019
Originally published on February 2, 2019 4:02 pm
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The NFL season comes to an end with the Super Bowl tomorrow. For many players, the season's been long, bruising and filled with injuries. Some take painkillers to make it through. But there is one drug they are not allowed to use - marijuana. As more states legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational use, pro football is wrestling with whether they ought to, as well. From member station WGBH in Boston, Esteban Bustillos has our report.

ESTEBAN BUSTILLOS, BYLINE: Jamie Brown's NFL career wasn't one that would make headlines.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: Up front - Jamie Brown, Ray Brown, Chris Dalman...

BUSTILLOS: This was back in 1998 when he played for the San Francisco 49ers. He would spend five seasons in the NFL as an offensive lineman, including stints with Denver and Washington. His body got pummeled. Brown says he took whatever he could stay on the field - Advil, Tylenol and stronger drugs, like Percocet. Eventually, a habit grew.

JAMIE BROWN: It's a ugly cycle that has no like - at least when I was playing, it had no shame associated with it. It was just mandatory. You got to do what you got to do so you can do what you want to do.

BUSTILLOS: Brown's story isn't unusual for NFL players. And now there's a growing movement to use alternatives to painkillers, including the use of marijuana. For now, the NFL bans its use. If a player is caught, they can be fined or suspended. As more states have legalized marijuana, the public stigma has decreased. Brandon Parker with the NFL Players Association says he's hearing from more players who wants to use marijuana to help treat their pain.

BRANDON PARKER: We're still definitely in the exploratory phase. But the fact that we're having these discussions, looking into this research - we're definitely aware of the possibilities that it could have to help our players.

BUSTILLOS: One of the union's priorities is making sure it's complying with the law. But the patchwork of different legal policies in states makes that difficult - even as marijuana is prohibited federally. There are 32 NFL teams in 23 states. About half those states allow medical marijuana and another five also permit recreational marijuana. Gary Feldman is an attorney in Boston. He says in several states where marijuana is legal, there are no protections for employees who use recreational weed. But if employers don't want to disqualify large chunks of potential employees, he can see policies changing.

GARY FELDMAN: Or it's going to take legislative action at the state level to give job-related protections to people who use marijuana where it's lawful and their use is not during working time and they're not impaired in any way during working hours.

BUSTILLOS: After Jamie Brown retired from football, he started using weed socially. And it helped him cope with pain he still had. So he began to advocate for its use. He doesn't take pain pills anymore to deal with the residual effects of his career.

BROWN: My pain management, especially when it comes to having issues with headaches and not being able to sleep and - gosh, I can't describe how this flower is everything to me when it comes to that. And I'm extremely thankful.

BUSTILLOS: For now, marijuana use remains out of bounds for NFL players. But that might change. The players union is having early talks to decide whether medical marijuana should be a permitted drug when the next the union contract is up for debate in two years. For NPR News, I'm Esteban Bustillos in Boston.

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