An NFL player’s career could be in jeopardy if he is unwilling to stop medicating with cannabis.
Mike James is currently a free agent and was formerly a running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was prescribed opioid-based painkillers in 2013 after injuring his left ankle. Weeks later, he was struggling with dependency on his medication.
James decided to medicate with cannabis to manage his pain and to wean off opioids.
“My pain subsided,” James told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
“I never had something where I could be coherent and still have pain relief,” he said.
Currently, NFL players are not permitted to use cannabis, even for medicinal reasons. Testing positive for cannabis use can result in hefty fines and suspensions.
There is only one way around the NFL’s strict substance policy for those seeking treatment with cannabis. Players can request a therapeutic use exemption. Last month, James became the first player to file such a request. On Thursday the NFL responded to the request. James’ exemption was denied and now he is unsure if he will be able to continue playing in the NFL.
“My career is at great risk,” James said.
NFL players have been known to struggle with dependency on opioids. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers found that 52 percent of former players reported having used opioid-based painkillers during their playing career. Of those who used opioids, 71 percent reported misusing their medication.
When James first started taking opioids he was not worried about becoming dependent “because I was getting them from a doctor,” he said.
James was initially skeptical about consuming cannabis.”I thought, ‘Weed? No, that’s a street drug.’ I didn’t even want to hear what it had to offer,” he said.
Other players have spoken out about cannabis after their playing days have officially ended. Some, like Marvin Washington and Ricky Williams, have even entered the cannabis industry. But James’ situation is unique.
“This is the first active player who’s been willing to put their professional career on the line, to openly admit that they not only have been using this cannabis but need it to function at the highest level,” said Dr. Sue Sisley, an Arizona-based physician and board member of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. Sisley helped James with his exemption application.
“Mike’s case is such a perfect example of why cannabis needs to be made available because he’s really not a candidate for opioids,” she said. “So this is a safe alternative for him.”
James did not set out to become an advocate for cannabis but seems to be getting comfortable with the idea.
“I’m not ashamed of it,” James said. “I’m not embarrassed about it. It is something that I will continue to use because I have a life to live.”