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How Attitudes are Changing About Athletes and Cannabis

Jan 13, 2016 10:48AM ● By Leland Rucker

As the end of the football season approaches, both the NFL and college athletic departments are looking at changes in the way they approach cannabis use by athletes.

A group of former NFL players is asking the league to seriously reevaluate the way it looks at prescription drugs and cannabis. And major universities are re-examining and changing rules on how they deal with student athletes who use cannabis.

Former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson told The Guardian that about half of all active NFL players use marijuana to treat injuries. Studies indicate that abuse of pain-prescription medications is a serious problem among former players. In the same story, retired tackle Kyle Turley said that he believes as many as 90 percent of former professional football players have developed drug-abuse problems after they retired.

The former players want the NFL to be able to offer players an alternative to opioid painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet. “I medicated with marijuana for most of my career as a tight end from 2003 through 2008,” said Jackson. “And I needed the medication. I broke my tibia, dislocated my shoulder, separated both shoulders, tore my groin off the bone once and my hamstring off the bone twice, broke fingers and ribs, tore my medial collateral ligament, suffered brain trauma, etc.”

In a recent New York Times editorial, Jackson said that players have to keep cannabis use discrete. “If they get caught, they get fined or suspended. It’s a really uncompassionate stance to take.”

A recent A.P. study indicates that some colleges are easing rules against players found using cannabis. Of 57 schools in the study, 23 have reduced penalties or allowed an athlete to test positive more times before being suspended.

In the Pac-12, five schools have changed their approach. CU-Boulder is not one of those. “Our rules remain: a warning/counseling after a first positive, 20 percent season suspension for a second positive, one-year suspension for a third,” says Sports Information Director Dave Plati.

A year ago the NCAA cut penalties in half for athletes testing positive for cannabis during championship events. In an interview, NCAA medical chief Dr. Brian Hainline said that his organization needs to focus on performance-enhancing drugs and leave schools to deal with recreational drug abuse individually.

The substance most abused on campuses is alcohol. Cannabis is a distant second. An NCAA survey of athletes in 2013 found 70 percent of Division I football players admitted using alcohol in the previous 12 months, while 19 percent admitted to using marijuana.