The National Football League recently announced that it will form two new committees with the NFL Players Association to address pain management and mental health, and rumors are circulating that the league's current ban on cannabis could be reconsidered. But athletes have been using medical marijuana for pain and stress management for decades, often risking their livelihoods to avoid opioids and alcohol. Former Pro Bowl running back Reuben Droughns, for example, says he used cannabis throughout his career, but only refers to the plant as "medicine."
Westword recently caught up with Droughns, who played three seasons for the Denver Broncos, to learn more about the NFL's upcoming committees and the current climate of cannabis use in the NFL.
Westword: You've played in junior college and major Division 1 football, and for professional teams across the country. How prevalent was cannabis use across all of your experiences during your football career?
Reuben Droughns: I think it was very prevalent. In general, the majority of players through my college, and particularly my professional career, used cannabis for pain management. To be honest, I think it’s a high percentage of players that use it. I would estimate that from what I experienced, anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of football players use some type of cannabis medicine. The alternative is to use opioids, which most players want to avoid, if possible, for day-to-day chronic pain.
Did you use cannabis while playing football?
I did. It was a constant concern, knowing you had to sneak around while you’re using it and worrying about getting caught. Most players know the system once they turn pro, and how it works as far as being tested. But it was definitely a part of my overall health maintenance.
Do you think any change in the NFL collective bargaining would change how coaches, owners and team executives viewed cannabis use?
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I'm not sure their overall opinion of the medicine will change. But with all the states that are moving to legalization, I think the view is they’d rather not have key players getting suspended for using it. They know it’s not a performance-enhancing drug and it’s not impacting the game in any way. Increased legalization helps create the atmosphere that will lead to changes in how use of the medicine is addressed.
How did your coaches feel about cannabis use? What about team owners? Do they even care, or is it a bargaining chip at this point?
I think over my career, different coaches and owners viewed it in different ways. Some were totally against it and wanted nothing to do with it in their organizations. Others just turned a blind eye to it. I think many coaches kind of understood why players were using it. I had former teammates who are coaches now and find themselves in the same situation, but they understand why players are using the medicines. They get it, and they don’t judge anyone for it, but rules are rules. My feeling is that many coaches and owners want a better solution for how to deal with players using it.
I think a big issue is convincing more people (including not just coaches and team owners, but also doctors), that this is real medicine, and not just something people use for fun. I’ve been working with a Denver company called Gofire, whose mission is to help make that happen by creating a system where people can precisely dose medicines and track their outcomes. It’s been a great help to me to make sure I'm not over-consuming while still using enough to get relief.
What sort of ailments would medical marijuana help football players deal with?
There are a lot of health issues football players experience where it can help. Inflammation issues, chronic pain, anxiety and sleep issues, to name just a few. In general, players need a way to relax without feeling pain. A lot of players have a tough time sleeping, either due to the pain they're dealing with or from the crazy schedule. One problem I had was learning what medicines work best for me. I’ve been using the Gofire app to help me search for different types of products for pain, sleep issues and anxiety. It’s really helped a lot, and I encourage everyone who’s concerned about using too much to give it a try.
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Considering the mental toll of professional football — pressure to perform, anxiety of getting cut, being away from your family — do you think it has medical value for mental purposes?
I most definitely do, especially with anxiety and depression; it helps relax the mind. We don’t totally know what all the healing properties are yet, but it does seem to help with mental stress.
Do you think the NFL would allow medical marijuana use before it's legalized federally, or just CBD?
I think they might approve the use of CBD before medical marijuana is legalized at the federal level. But I do think they will move to a place where they’re not as strict on testing, or with such heavy fines. I think attitudes and opinions are changing. I believe the recent news about the NFL and players' union agreeing to research the issue is a big step forward.