DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In several states, the question of whether marijuana should be legal was put to voters, and many voters said yes. Pot now is legal for recreational or medicinal use in more than half the country, but it is still against federal law. It's also still banned in professional sports. Many athletes hope that changes as marijuana support grows, especially in the NFL, where marijuana could offer a better way to manage the pain that often affects athletes. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Football hurts. As a fan watching, it's not always obvious. Players collide, fall down, pop back up, rarely wincing or showing weakness. It's the football way.
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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: And the offensive line - Orlando Pace and Kyle Turley.
GOLDMAN: In his eight NFL seasons beginning in the 1990s, offensive lineman Kyle Turley was involved in jarring collisions nearly every play when his team had the ball. He hurt after his career. He sometimes walks with a cane. And in this video from last year, Turley displayed, one by one, bottles of the powerful painkillers he used.
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KYLE TURLEY: Vicodin, Flexeril, Percocet, Vioxx, morphine.
GOLDMAN: Turley says he became addicted to the drugs and thought about suicide. Then, last year, he quit the prescription painkillers and replaced them with marijuana.
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TURLEY: Just this right here. That's all you need to. That's about two hits.
GOLDMAN: The video is from a website for the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition. Turley helped start the group as a way to promote marijuana as a legal option for pain management in football. The effort may be gaining traction as the country's acceptance of pot grows. George Atallah is an executive with the NFL Players Association. He says, in the next couple of weeks, the union will form a committee to examine pain issues for players.
GEORGE ATALLAH: Certainly, given some of the medical research that's out there, marijuana's going to be one of the substances that we take a look at.
GOLDMAN: As it should be, says pain specialist Daniel Clauw. He's a University of Michigan professor of anesthesiology who's studied cannabis in pain management for the past five years. He says it's no contest when you compare the safety of marijuana and the narcotic painkillers known as opioids that Kyle Turley and so many other NFL players have had to use. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, more than 14,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids. Here's Dr. Clauw.
DANIEL CLAUW: You can't directly die from taking a cannabinoid the way tens of thousands of people are directly dying from opioids each year in the U.S.
GOLDMAN: Cannabinoids are the active components in marijuana. Dr. Clauw published a study this year showing cannabis also was more effective than opioids for managing chronic pain. Subjects in the study noted they felt a lot better using cannabis and experienced fewer side effects. Dr. Clauw says marijuana isn't the only option for pain relief, nor is it a perfect alternative to opioids.
Cannabis can be addictive, although much less so than narcotic painkillers. The NFL bans marijuana and suspends a player after four violations. A written statement from the league says it would be open to reconsidering its policy, which it collectively bargained with the union. But for now, the league's medical experts haven't recommended any changes.
CLAUW: I don't know where they're getting their medical experts.
GOLDMAN: Again, Dr. Clauw.
CLAUW: But I don't know hardly anyone in the pain field that would be able to support the position that the NFL is taking based on just scientific data.
GOLDMAN: When asked to provide one of its experts for an interview, an NFL spokesman said, quote, "they don't speak to the media." Meanwhile, the pro football season rolls on. The hurting continues. For players, the search continues for better and safer ways not to hurt. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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