BLOG: Athletes in the weed industry

David Weissman

When a video surfaced on NFL Draft night of top prospect Laremy Tunsil smoking weed out of a gas mask, the former Ole Miss offensive tackle fell several spots further than expected, potentially costing him millions of dollars.

Baltimore Ravens lineman Eugene Monroe  (second from left) is the first active NFL player to call on the league to remove marijuana from its list of banned substances.

But as marijuana increasingly becomes legal in some form in more and more states, many former professional athletes are investing time and money in the industry surrounding a plant still banned to varying degrees by the NFL, NBA and MLB.

First, let's destroy the myth that professional sports franchises don't want their athletes using cannabis for fear of decreased performance.

Swimmer Michael Phelps was photographed smoking out of a bong shortly after becoming one of the most decorated American Olympians of all time. Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon, who is currently suspended by the NFL for marijuana use, was the league's leader in reception yards a few seasons ago ... on the Browns! That's talent.

And let's not forget Von Miller, the Denver Broncos Super Bowl MVP-winning linebacker, who was suspended for six games after testing positive for marijuana shortly after he arrived in the league.

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There's actually an organization, 420 Games, that hosts athletic events throughout states where the substance is legal and is "advocating responsible use of cannabis & to destigmatize the many people who use it in a positive manner," according to its mission statement.

A bigger fear down the road for athletes may actually be certain leagues ruling that marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug.

Athletes aren't using marijuana to enhance their performance, though; they're using it — trust me, they are — either for its believed medicinal benefits or just recreationally.

Of the four major American sports leagues, the NFL, NBA and MLB all ban marijuana in some form or another. The NHL tests for it, but cannabis is not listed as a banned substance.

The NFL, in particular, has taken a hard-line stance, suspending countless big-name players over marijuana usage each year.

Chris Goldstein, a leading consumer and patient advocate in Philadelphia, said the NFL is under the microscope even more because its players are under constantly under pain management.

"In general, football players using marijuana are just making a healthy lifestyle choice," Goldstein said, pointing out the common practice of team doctors prescribing addictive opioids.

Last week, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Eugene Monroe became the first active NFL player to call on the league to remove marijuana from its banned substance list.

Monroe also donated $80,000 to researchers at Johns Hopkins University and University of Pennsylvania to fund two separate studies covering current and former players focusing on health issues, substance use, recoveries and quality of life.

Meredith Frazier, a spokeswoman representing Monroe, said the seven-year NFL veteran understands there's some risk in his active stance, but teammates and other players around the league have been very supportive thus far.

Monroe has been prescribed opioids throughout his career, including after a recent shoulder surgery, and Frazier said Monroe is simply advocating for cannabidiol (CBD) over such addictive painkillers.

While Monroe serves as the only active NFL player advocate, former players are increasingly coming forward in support of cannabis' pain management benefits.

The Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, a San Diego-based organization focused on the education and research/treatment of marijuana benefits for football players, currently comprises 40-50 former NFL players, according to co-founder Michael Cindrich.

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Cindrich said the organization began with former NFL offensive lineman Kyle Turley, who used marijuana to detox off prescription opioids that were leading to depression and suicidal thoughts.

Turley has been diagnosed with symptoms of Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain injury that's been identified in numerous deceased football players.

Turley has since stepped down from the organization, but the coalition is currently finalizing a study with Stanford University to help determine the effectiveness of cannabis as a treatment method, Cindrich said.

The coalition is also helping KannaLife Sciences, a New York biotech company currently conducting research in Doylestown, as it works to develop a CBD-based drug to treat brain injuries, including CTE.

Former NFL defensive lineman Marvin Washington currently serves on KannaLife's advisory board.

Washington is one of numerous athletes now aligning himself with businesses attempting to profit off cannabis. In Oregon, former NBA player Cliff "Uncle Cliffy" Robinson is attempting to launch a brand of marijuana designed for athletes, called Uncle Spliffy.

In San Francisco, former running back Ricky Williams, perhaps the most notorious pot user in NFL history, is attempting to launch a marijuana-friendly gym.

"It used to be, after pro athletes retired, they'd buy car dealership; now they're looking to get in the cannabis business," Goldstein said. "As sincere as they are, and they do believe they've been told the right science, they believe they can make money."

Goldstein said he believes sports, which have served civil rights indicators in the past, will change its policies before marijuana is legalized throughout the country.

"NFL players will certainly be using CBD oil before I can walk into a retail store in Salt Lake City to buy a joint," he said.

Goldstein pointed to the large influence players' unions have in pro sports as a reason for his thinking.

Ricky Williams recently told the International Business Times he wasn't sure whether NFL players would forgo other concessions, such as higher salaries, for more lenient cannabis rules.

“It comes down to money,” Williams said. “Because football players are worried about money, they are not worried about changing their quality of life. When they negotiated the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, they could have given up money to create a change in cannabis policy, but they didn’t.”

Goldstein argued that the unions will likely get more aggressive because players are tired of being suspended for something most players use.

Cindrich acknowledged that, while the majority of the former players he's spoken with knew when they were being drug tested, getting marijuana removed from the banned substance list is a major goal.

"These guys don't want to hide or be afraid anymore," he said.

— Reach David Weissman at or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid. Like the blog on Facebook at The CannaBiz Kid.