Illustration: Jim Cooke (GMG)

In the quest for homeostasis, pain is your friend. Pain tells you when you’re wrong. When you need to change your behavior. For an athlete, pain is your coach. Pushing your body to its limits causes Coach Pain to speak up. Are you hurting or are you hurt? Is this a no-pain/no-gain situation or are you doing permanent damage? When you eat Vicodin or get shot up with Toradol, the voice that knows the answer grows quiet. Painkillers for athletes are like mittens for a guitarist: completely missing the point. Which is why many athletes use cannabis for pain: it keeps the mittens off the strings. It allows them to home in on the pain. Embrace the misery and you’ll scare it away.

But here in America, pleasure is the game, and anything less than happy needs medicine. Pain? Kill it. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 72,306 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017. 49,068 of those were from opioids. 46 people die every day from prescription opioid overdoses.

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You think they had oxycontin on the Mayflower? The journey is supposed to hurt. That’s how you arrive somewhere. Sitting with physical pain is instructive because it subsides. To heal is to be empowered by nature.

Millions of sweet-hearted American kids come into the world with a reckless spirit: always running ahead, jumping over things, tackling other kids, climbing trees, skateboarding, wrestling, getting stitches, ripping holes in their pants—only to be corralled by adults who label them as sick and drug them. So instead of blaming the teacher for a bad lesson plan, we say this of the restless kid, from the CDC’s description of ADHD:

Smaller children may run, jump or climb constantly. The individual feels restless and has trouble with impulsivity. A person with impulsiveness may have more accidents and injuries than others.

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Sounds like most teammates I ever had. That’s why we played sports, man! I was a disruptive student and was always banged up. I played lots of games and annoyed lots of people. But no one gave me pills. My treatment was detention. Exercise was medication.

A 2018 JAMA study estimated that 10 percent of American kids have ADHD. That’s about 7.4 million children. Well over half of these 7.4 million kids are on ADHD medications. These are powerful drugs, which can lead to more powerful drugs. Eventually, when they have a “legitimate injury,” they become great candidates for opioids, since they are familiar with the pills and all. By the grace of Jah, I never got familiar with the pills, because right before high school, I discovered cannabis. Cannabis did for me what doctors hope Ritalin does for kids. My racing mind downshifted. I was less antsy. Less prone for an outburst. More able to focus.

But cannabis has a PR problem, one that pro football’s imprimatur could actually help with.

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Say you do want to try cannabis instead of Adderall, or instead of Xanax, or Hydrocodone. Have you been to a cannabis dispensary lately? It doesn’t exactly scream medical facility.

“First thing I do when I wake up,” says the Budtender, “I smoke some Blue Dream. Its like your morning coffee!”

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never had a Colombian roast that made me hide in the closet for two hours. It’s not like coffee. It is like incredibly strong cannabis sativa grown to volumize the THC content and fuck you up!

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Do not smoke Blue Dream for breakfast!

That a substance can be both a widely accepted recreational activity and a medicine is itself a hard pill for some to swallow. There simply is no precedent for it in western medicine, I don’t think. Can you imagine a discount at the liquor store for alcoholics who have a doctor’s prescription for vodka? Or a Lipitor Festival with everyone in the parking lot just crushing up and sniffing hella Lipitor and eating super-shitty food?

How does your doctor recommend a medicine that sounds like a cartoon character?

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“My husband has cancer?”

“Yes, ma’am, but don’t worry, we have him on 30 CCs of Chemdawg and 20 CCs of Trainwreck.”

The large variety of colorfully named strains, (or chemovars, to be technical, I guess because some people think that “strain” implies disease) can leave even a seasoned cannabis consumer confused. When do I smoke what?

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No one really knows, but it’s okay because—and this is a common trope in the industry—marijuana has never killed anyone. It’s true. They’ve tried to kill animals with weed and couldn’t. They gave a monkey 9,000 milligrams of THC and it didn’t die. God bless that fucking monkey. He may not have died, but there is such a thing as too much THC. I’m sure everyone knows someone who personifies this. Too high is definitely a thing.

But then you attend medical cannabis conventions, like I have, and you hear testimonial after testimonial from patients who swear that cannabis saved their lives. And it is hard to argue with them. But their stories always involve a confluence of unique biological, genetic and environmental factors, outside of just the solitary cannabis plant. It’s not that the Gorilla Glue healed you. It’s that the Gorilla Glue stimulated the body’s ability to heal itself. There are studies that observe cancer cells shrinking and even disappearing after coming into contact with cannabinoids.

But then just yesterday I saw a Monster Truck advertising a 420 Festival that has a Dab Station where High Concentrate Wax Shatter is vaporized via blow torch and passed through a nine-foot Glass Dragon and shot down your throat by a leaf blower.

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Cannabis in sports is an important conversation because it is removed from this stereotype. Elite daily physical performance in a system that demands you fall in line. If you don’t, you get fired. If you don’t get fired, whatever you’re doing is working.

The NFL can learn what’s working, too. The league should absolutely keep testing the players for weed. But instead of punishing a positive test, use the information to help monitor the player’s health. After a few years, you’ll have some data, which can help shape the league-wide policy toward a plant the players are already using. It is likely that the league already does want this, but will instead use this issue as a bargaining chip, as many have suggested, to insure some other concession from players during CBA negotiations, which will commence in earnest next year.

Call me naive, but I’m envisioning a different scenario: a collaborative effort, far removed from the negotiating table; the NFL and NFLPA working together to understand the role cannabis plays and can play in keeping the players healthy, so that they may entertain us all. So we may live through them. So they may live when we are through with them.

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Nate Jackson played six years in the NFL and has written two books, Slow Getting Up and Fantasy Man. He co-founded Athletes for CARE, a non-profit that advocates for the health and wellness of athletes. He lives in L.A.