At the very least, it boxes the league into a corner to admit that medical marijuana might be the best pain reliever it can provide its players
CBD, the non-psychoactive component of cannabis, has been billed as a cure-all recently, with advocates saying it can be used to treat a litany of medical conditions — e.g., insomnia, gastrointestinal dysfunction, pain relief, inflammation and opiate addiction, to name just a few. And now, scientists are exploring whether chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative condition common in former football players and long thought to be untreatable, can be added to that list as well.
It’s a welcome development for anyone who’s played football at any level. Once thought to only afflict punch-drunk boxers and the most brain-rattled of NFL players, CTE has been detected more and more frequently in recent years in men who played only college, or in some rare cases, just high school or youth football.
But it also presents a thorny legal quandary for the NFL, the organization most closely associated with CTE. On one hand, the NFL has acknowledged football has a concussion crisis, and that it would love to be seen as a leader in developing treatments for CTE and all other concussion-related maladies. However, there’s no way for the league to fund such research without acknowledging a link between concussions and CTE, and thus, opening itself up to billions of dollars in potential lawsuits from players. (The league is currently paying out approximately $1 billion in a class-action settlement with former players over concussions.) And that’s to say nothing of the NFL’s reluctance to embrace medical marijuana (or marijuana of any kind), in general.
To discuss the complicated medical, legal and ethical implications of this research, I recently spoke with Kyle Turley, a former NFL player turned cannabis entrepreneur; Dr. Gillian Hotz, the director of the concussion program at the University of Miami; and Chris Nowinski, a former WWE wrestler, the CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the leading voice for concussion awareness.
The Science of CBD as a Neuroprotective Agent
“Based on a little research, a lot of anecdotal reports and our knowledge of the endocannabinoid system, we believe CBD may be good for pain relief, headaches and anxiety, which are all common symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury and concussion,” Hotz explains. The research is being conducted on rats first, with hopes of conducting a full-scale clinical trial on hundreds of human subjects in the future.
Hotz’s dream of developing a concussion treatment pill is based on preliminary research showing how CBD attaches to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the brain, forming a neuroprotective effect — helping reduce inflammation in brain cells, specifically in people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.
“This is old news to me,” says Turley, who began using medical marijuana years ago to treat his myriad pain and concussion-related health issues. “CBD is a known neuroprotectant.” Turley was one of the baddest dudes in the league when he played, and in retirement, he’s become a staunch medical marijuana advocate. In fact, Turley is such a believer in CBD that three years ago, he founded Neuro XPF, which makes CBD products aimed at improving brain health.
Turley can come off as a bit of a crank when evangelizing about CBD — he readily describes himself as a “crazy former football player” — but he’s right about one thing: The federal government, through the Department of Health and Human Services, owns a patent for using cannabinoids to treat a host of neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia, each of which tend to occur concurrently with CTE.
In other words: It can’t be that crazy of a remedy.
Too Soon to Tell
As promising as this all is, Nowinski cautions about jumping to premature conclusions. “There are a lot of products with pre-clinical data on neuroprotective qualities,” he warns. “We encourage research into those treatments. But until the research is there, there’s not much to say. With CBD, there are a lot of people investing in that space right now, which means there’s promise.”
The medical marijuana industry’s claims about CBD being an all-natural panacea capable of treating everything does seem a little dubious. So take it with a grain of salt when the cannabis industry says CBD can reduce the buildup of tau proteins in the brain, the biomarker known to cause CTE and Alzheimer’s.
The NFL’s CTE and Weed Dilemma
If there’s any institution that can provide the money and political clout necessary to pursue the necessary studies into whether CBD is a legitimate CTE treatment, it’s the NFL. But while the NFL has made efforts to reduce the amount and severity of head impacts in football, it’s still reluctant to associate itself with research that acknowledges head impacts lead to long-term neurological defects.
Essentially, the NFL draws a subtle, and mostly false, distinction between concussions and CTE (even though brain trauma experts say they’re inextricably linked). “They acknowledge they have a concussion issue. They don’t acknowledge that they have a CTE issue,” Nowinski explains.
Turley, for instance, says he’s frequently spoken with NFL executives about CBD’s potential for treating concussion-related brain diseases, but the NFL always brushes off his requests for a more formal meeting on the manner. And hanging over all of this is the NFL’s reticence to support medical marijuana use among its players more generally. Just last week, the NFL denied running back Mike James’ request to use marijuana to treat his pain. James, like many players, developed an addiction to prescription painkillers, and believes marijuana to be a safe alternative to opioids.
Turley doesn’t blame the NFL as much as he does the federal government, though. “The NFL says they’re open to CBD, but they won’t act on CBD because of marijuana’s scheduling status,” he says. The DEA classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug “with no currently accepted medical use,” the same classification as heroin, peyote and meth. (That’s a pretty rich hypocrisy given the government’s patent on CBD for neuroprotective uses.)
The Schedule I classification also impedes scientific research into CBD. Hotz, for instance, has to keep the CBD for her study in a locked container within a locked room. “If the NFL doesn’t want to talk about CBD and concussions, that’s fine,” Turley says. “They don’t even need to acknowledge anything. They just need to stop testing players for cannabis, and the players can address this problem themselves.”