Athletes are leading cannabis into the mainstream

The bottle stared at Cullen Jenkins for two weeks untouched on his nightstand, and he stared back at it.

“I thought I was going to be high,” Jenkins says. “I thought I was going to be just tripping the same things as weed. But it wasn’t anything like that. It’s more of a mellow, calming, smooth feeling. I felt pretty good.”

Within just two months of trying Fresh Farms CBD Oil, Jenkins is already a cannabis evangelist. This past NFL season was his first out of football. As the season began, he worked out and digested tape, believing he might be signed by an NFL team at any time. Jenkins started 138 games as an NFL defensive tackle across 13 seasons. He won a Super Bowl with the Packers. Including his high school days, Jenkins had played competitive football for nearly 20 years. But after being cut by Washington in 2016, teams didn’t call and Jenkins felt listless.

“And you have that sense of — I guess, not of being a failure, but not being good enough as well,” Jenkins says. “I went through a while where I wouldn’t get out of bed until 2 in the afternoon. You just felt kind of like a bum, or you just felt like — I don’t know there’s a word that I’m looking for to use.

“You just felt unimportant, I guess. Like you didn’t really matter.”

Jenkins says his wife and cousin both pushed him to try CBD oil, which can be taken like a nutritional supplement by using a dropper to squirt a not-unpleasant tasting gob of brown-gold tincture beneath the tongue. Jenkins was leery, but then he quickly noticed a change in himself. His says his joints feel better, and his depression and anxiety eat at him less. He has been able to talk to his two teenage daughters more easily, and without becoming irritable. He’s been more vocal and focused in his carpentry classes, and “anybody who knows me knows that’s not really the type of student I am.”

“At the foundation of what I’m talking about is player health and safety. If you want to get distracted by the stigma or what not, well that’s on you.” —Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan

Jenkins used to drink half a fifth of vodka and several beers to chase it every day. He started drinking just to sleep, but then the drinking would make him feel sick when he woke up. So he would take pills as needed to handle any pain, then drink, try to sleep, and repeat.

Cannabis ended that cycle — for him. The emphasis is necessary there because though the product that Jenkins takes doesn’t get him high, it is derived from the cannabis plant, which is classified as a Schedule I drug by the United States Controlled Substances Act, alongside heroin and DMT. As such, the evidence of cannabis’ medicinal benefits is still not as thorough and as vetted as many would like, nor is any understanding of its negative side effects.

What, exactly, cannabis can and can’t do is incredibly hard to say. What we can tell you is Jenkins is not alone. That across the United States — and among former professional athletes, especially — people are telling stories of how cannabis curtailed their epileptic seizures, helped manage their chronic pain, and gave them their lives back. We can also show you research that says in states where medical cannabis is legal, opioid overdose deaths and addiction treatment admissions have fallen, providing a glimmer of hope to perhaps solving an American epidemic.

And just as those stories are adding up, so too is a $9.7 billion and growing industry in North America around things like tinctures and creams and inhalers and tablets and vape pens and more that all can purportedly make you feel better in just about every way you think you need to feel better — from strong evidence that it soothes regular ‘ol aches to nascent (but not insignificant) evidence that it slows the production of proteins that cause Alzheimer’s.

At the forefront of this green rush are athletes, perhaps the best possible ambassadors for an industry that would very much like you to know that they are not trying to sell you a good time, but something that will soon come to be categorized officially as medicine. A product that, with any luck, can help fix some of this nation’s biggest problems — not just substance dependence, as it did for Jenkins, but also things like a prohibitively expensive healthcare system and the disproportionate arrest rate of people of color.

Sounds pretty good, right?

The word you should implant in your brain now — because in due time, you may have no choice — is “CBD.” See-bee-dee is an easier way to say cannabidiol, one of at least 113 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids are why we’re here: They’re chemical compounds that act on receptors in the brain and can alter neural function. For example, tetrahydrocannabinol — THC — is largely responsible for getting you high, and may also have a host of benefits that are still difficult to study as long as cannabis is illegal at the federal level.

Alongside THC, CBD is also abundant in many strains of cannabis, but won’t get you high in exchange for all the purported good it does.

The idea that cannabis (which you might better knows as “marijuana,” but that term has issues) is good for body and soul goes as far back as at least 2900 B.C. when the Chinese emperor Fu Hsi wrote about it as a “popular medicine that possessed both yin and yang.” In 1851, cannabis was recognized as medicine in the United States Pharmacopeia, a compendium of drug standards still enforced by the Food and Drug Administration. Back then, it was indicated to treat “neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia, epidemic cholera, convulsions, chorea, hysteria, mental depression, delirium tremens, insanity, and uterine hemorrhage.”

But over time, cannabis developed a stigma. The Marihuana Tax Act made it officially illegal under federal law in 1937, despite opposition from the American Medical Association. In 1969, the Supreme Court struck down the act, but then the Controlled Substances Act took its place and categorized cannabis as Schedule I — meaning, in the government’s view, that cannabis has a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medicinal value.

Richard Nixon appointed a commission to review cannabis’ criteria as a Schedule I drug. But by the time the Shafer Commission recommended that cannabis be descheduled — and, in fact, decriminalized — Nixon had already officially declared the War on Drugs, and stated outright in 1971 he would reject the commission’s findings if it proposed legalization:

As you know, there is a commission that is supposed to make recommendations to me about this subject; in this instance, however, I have such strong views that I will express them. I am against legalizing marijuana. Even if the commission does recommend that it be legalized, I will not follow that recommendation ... I can see no social or moral justification whatever for legalizing marijuana. I think it would be exactly the wrong step. It would simply encourage more and more of our young people to start down the long, dismal road that leads to hard drugs and eventually self-destruction.

And this is all, roughly, how we wound up with Ricky Williams.

The NFL instituted rigorous drug testing in the 1980s, coinciding nicely with Nancy Reagan taking up Nixon’s torch and telling America to “Just Say No.” When Williams was drafted in 1999, America was still largely afraid of pot. In 2000, a Pew Research poll found roughly three in 10 Americans supported marijuana legalization, and just four states had legalized medical cannabis.

So when Williams privately struggled with anxiety and depression, and was revealed publicly to be relying on marijuana, America wasn’t kind. Williams described being abandoned by sponsors after it was announced that in December 2003 he had tested positive for cannabis, thus failing his second NFL drug test.

Ricky Williams when he played for the Dolphins. Photo by Getty Images

He has said he started smoking regularly during his first three NFL seasons, which included a league-leading 1,853 yards rushing for the Dolphins in 2002. He retired early from football in 2004, only to come back, after soul-searching, as an unapologetic cannabis user. He would later say he wouldn’t have won the 1998 Heisman Trophy or played 11 NFL seasons if not for pot.

By coming back, Williams set an important precedent: He proved you could use cannabis and still excel — he rushed for 4.4 yards per carry in 12 games in 2005, before violating the NFL drug policy a fourth time and being suspended for the 2006 season — even at a sport that supposedly demands utmost discipline and commitment to succeed. Former Jets defensive end Marvin Washington credits Williams as one of the first pro athletes to normalize cannabis use.

“I know some of these guys ... and they’ll tell you this themselves that they’ve been involved with cannabis since high school,” Washington says. “So you look at the sacrifice and the things they did, and it goes against everything that you’ve been taught, that you’re lazy, unfocused, you get the munchies, you’re not going to accomplish much.

“These guys graduated from high school, got a scholarship, got degrees, they excelled, and came into the NFL and had long careers, and they were medicating and using cannabis all the way through.”

Whereas then Williams was seen as a rudderless screw-up, today he can be credited as one of the cannabis movement’s pioneers. He has been outspoken about his social anxiety disorder and his cannabis use, even opening a line of weed gyms and more recently revealing a personal line of cannabis products.

Washington discovered cannabis independent of Williams, mind you. The two men weren’t contemporaries — Washington retired after the 1999 season, the same year Williams was drafted. Instead, Washington says he was approached by a company making CBD products about four and a half years ago.

“I didn’t know the difference between THC or TLC, or CBD and CBGB,” Washington laughs. “And that brought on a deep dive into cannabis, because once you’re in the space then you meet all these cannabis nurses and doctors and kids that are medicating and what have you, and you learn about different strains, and you learn that that your body has a system in it called the endocannabinoid system, and then you learn that you see all these soldiers that are suffering from PTSD that are being helped. You see people with MS.”

Former NFL players suffer opioid addiction at four times the rate of the general population.

Washington mentions former Saints, Rams, and Chiefs offensive tackle Kyle Turley, who began experimenting with cannabis in 2012 after reading a study showing a cannabinoid was able to protect mice from brain injury. Turley credits cannabis for saving his life. He once recalled standing on a balcony the night he was inducted into the San Diego State Hall of Fame when he had a sudden desire to jump, and says the fact that he was smoking cannabis is the reason he didn’t. He battled thoughts of taking his own life, and the lives of his wife and children, something he has blamed on the anti-depression medication he was taking.

Turley says he hasn’t taken any kind of pill — no anti-inflammatories, no opiates, and no antidepressants — since 2015. He is convinced that football deteriorated his brain, and calls cannabis “the best psych medication I’ve ever been prescribed in my life.”

“You know we’re football players, we’re alpha males charged to play a game,” Turley says. “And individuals like myself playing positions where we’re supposed to be violent, we’re supposed to get our point across through being loud and forceful. That doesn’t go over very well in the real world.

“And I’ve found that this plant has the ability to help us control our brains more than anything.”

Washington and Turley are now veterans of the movement, one that’s seeping into the realm of current players. The NFL still has a draconian cannabis policy relative to just about any professional sports league you can think of, but that didn’t stop Eugene Monroe from becoming the first active NFL player to advocate for the use of cannabis to treat pain in 2016, nor is it stopping current Titans outside linebacker Derrick Morgan, who is pushing the NFL to follow through on its promise to study medical cannabis.

Morgan credits the Titans for standing by him, even if they don’t necessarily support his views. When Morgan became an active advocate for cannabis in 2016, he wasn’t sure whether he would face repercussions, but he had done his own research and made a calculated decision to speak up.

“I felt like me being able to spread the word was worth any type of repercussions that could come to me,” Morgan says. “Because I looked at it from a logical standpoint — as in what I’m talking about, the subject matter, the education I have on it ... they were all coming from good places. So I felt at peace with any type of repercussion that could come my way because my motives were right.

“At the foundation of what I’m talking about is player health and safety. If you want to get distracted by the stigma or what not, well that’s on you.”

The list of current and former athletes who have advocated for cannabis is now long. UFC fighters seem to use cannabis liberally, though THC is still banned, and Nate Diaz has become a de facto CBD poster boy. In the NBA, Al Harrington, Cliff Robinson, and Rick Barry are all advocates who have vested interests in the industry.

Photo by Getty Images

Former NFL players who support medicinal cannabis may stretch into the dozens, including the likes of Leonard Marshall, Jake Plummer, and Jim McMahon. The league is a flashpoint for the cannabis debate, because football is both immensely popular and immensely violent. The link between repeated physical trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a.k.a., CTE) is nearly incontrovertible, as is the fact that former players suffer opioid addiction at four times the rate of the general population.

This wave of athletes supporting cannabis isn’t a case of retirees needing new hobbies; the debate is personal. And where once cannabis was associated with locker room misfits, it now seems to be building a loud and legitimizing chorus of support.

“We have more information at our hands than at any time in history, and people are starting to see that those were lies, that was misinformation, and this plant has been here for over 10,000 years,” Washington says. “We need to get to medicating with bio-based medicine, which is plant-based medicine, because we cannot continue down this path that we’re going with the opiates and benzodiazepines, or else we’re going to lose a generation.”

By 2021, Troy Dayton predicts that cannabis will grow into a $24 billion industry. He’s the CEO of The Arcview Group, a network that connects investors to entrepreneurs who are developing cannabis products and product lines. He is a founding board member of the National Cannabis Industry Association, and was named one of Fortune’s “seven most powerful people in America’s marijuana industry.” And even he says he was “late to the game” when he realized the potential that athletes had to speak to America.

“It hit me that sports stars are the true icons of American culture. And it just started dawning on me like, ‘Oh, right!,’” Dayton says. “And the sports media really hits a different audience than the political media. These are cultural figures that are really speaking to how Americans see things.”

Today, many of those early athlete cannabis advocates are now financially staked in the industry’s growth. Dayton says Williams was an early investor with Arcview, and Monroe is involved with the group now. Turley has his own line called Neuro XPF. Washington represents Isodiol. In the NBA, Harrington began a company called Viola Extracts, and Robinson has his Uncle Cliffy brand. Barry, at 74 years old, is an ambassador for a bulk CBD producer, manufacturer, and distributor called Folium Biosciences.

Says Barry: “The beauty of life is that if you can be involved in the business world and do something that’s providing a product or a service or whatever that helps to improve the lives, and maybe even saving the lives, of other people, and you can make a living doing that. That’s pretty darn cool.”

Advocate Ryan Kingsbury realized the power athletes had while working as communications director for a Colorado hemp producer. CW Hemp, founded and run by the Stanley brothers, created a low-THC, high-CBD oil named Charlotte’s Web, which CNN spotlighted in an impactful special about a girl named Charlotte Figi who suffered from frequent and severe epileptic seizures. Charlotte’s family tried to help her with pharmaceutical drugs, but found they were only effective for so long before the seizures would come back, hundreds per week. With the help of two doctors and the Stanleys, Charlotte was able to start a CBD treatment. Today, the family says Charlotte has fewer than three seizures per month, and Charlotte’s mother continues to be an advocate for medical cannabis.

“We need to get to medicating with bio-based medicine, which is plant-based medicine, because we cannot continue down this path that we’re going with the opiates and benzodiazepines, or else we’re going to lose a generation.” —Former Jets DE Marvin Washington

Off the notoriety of Charlotte’s story, CW and its its non-profit partner, the Realm of Caring, tasked Kingsbury with reaching out to former NFL players for a campaign called When the Bright Lights Fade, which raised money for studies into how CBD can treat and prevent the onset of symptoms associated with CTE. At the time, the NFL hadn’t yet admitted what now appears to be a clear link between the neurodegenerative disease and football. Kingsbury noticed that ticket sales would spike at cannabis conferences whenever the athletes he recruited would speak. One of the first people he reached out to was Plummer.

“Plummer was doing interviews, and I would get emails — tons of emails,” Kingsbury says. “In fact, a CW representative at the time estimated that 60 to 70 percent of their call volume was people referring to something they had read about one of the athletes.”

Kingsbury pushed CW to strengthen its relationship with athletes, but he says the company wanted to target its marketing and advocacy toward families, like Charlotte’s. So Kingsbury branched off, taking his rolodex of pro athletes to form Athletes For Care, an organization run for and by athletes who are interested in cannabis. Both Morgan and Washington sit on the board of directors, along with former Jaguars offensive tackle Eben Britton and former Broncos wide receiver Nate Jackson.

Athletes for Care not only develops advocacy campaigns, but it helps current and former athletes navigate the cannabis industry by, for example, reviewing any contracts they sign with cannabis companies to make sure they are fairly compensated. According to Kingsbury, the experience athletes have with cannabis is often worth more — much more — than they realize.

The idea that athletes are great at hocking products goes back to Honus Wagner agreeing to let Louisville Sluggers ship bats with his signature in 1905. Since then, athletes have been used to sell insurance and shoes and beer and all sorts of horrible flavors of sports drinks. However, very rarely have they been able to sell something that could be so acutely important to them.

“The fans only see Sunday. We know how the sausage is made during the week,” Washington says. “And we know what it takes to get on the field. That’s why we speak out about it so passionately. Listen, if they only knew, they would be in favor of something that was non-toxic and non-addictive for athletes to use, and it’s cannabis.”

And athletes appeal broadly. According to Kingsbury, pro-cannabis advocates are often on two ends of a spectrum: the heavy recreational users — your stereotypical stoners — and those with severe neurological ailments — like Charlotte. Kingsbury says athletes have the ability to appeal to the wide swath in the middle, those who don’t want to define their life by cannabis, but may be struggling with anxiety, or some physical pain.

The general public may not need to be as worried about CTE, and their bodies certainly don’t take near the beating of, say, the average starting offensive guard. But we all need maintenance, and as athletes show us how they use cannabis to get by in their daily lives, their message is that we can, too.

Photo by Getty Images

“The reality is that there’s a huge population in between that I really think could benefit from cannabis, but do not feel empowered to talk about it,” Kingsbury says, “because there’s no message coming to them about, ‘Hey, it’s OK, you can be active, you can be healthy, and still use cannabis.’

“And I felt very powerfully that while Charlotte and the story of what she endured really opened the door to be able to have the dialogue, and for people to kind of accept the healing properties of cannabis, I really felt like the athletes were going to be the key to remove the stigma that’s been there.”

That power in advocacy is a good thing provided that the cause is just. Again, a lot of what former athletes claim that cannabis can do hasn’t been vetted in a strict testing environment. And before cannabis, alcohol and tobacco were also marketed both as conduits to fun and relaxation, as well as (albeit in bygone eras) health elixirs.

Athletes may be normalizing cannabis to America, but whether America is ready for cannabis is, as of yet, unclear.

Federal legalization feels inevitable. Medical cannabis is now legal in 29 states, as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. Recreational cannabis is legal or decriminalized in nine states and D.C., and is expected to be legal in Canada as of this summer. Currently, 61 percent of Americans support legalizing cannabis, a figure that jumps to 70 percent among millennials.

And with these new and burgeoning markets comes the possibility for exploitation. There’s good reason for skepticism. In 2015, for example, a Buzzfeed report found many cannabis users bought products that appeared to be mislabeled or falsely advertised.

“There’s no oversight. There’s no mechanism that gives the consumer some assurance that what they think they’re getting is what they’re getting,” said Amanda Reiman, the manager of marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance. “If someone sells you 30 percent THC cannabis, and you don’t feel high, you have an idea it’s not quite what was advertised. Because CBD is non-psychoactive, if someone gives you a tincture that’s says 25 percent and it’s actually three percent, you’re not going to be able to tell that just from ingesting it.”

It also means that no one is testing hemp CBD products for whether THC traces exceed the legal limit. A truck driver is suing Medical Marijuana Inc. over a product he used to alleviate hip and shoulder pain. The product was advertised as containing zero percent THC, but the driver claims it was the reason he failed a drug test, lost his job, and has been unable to find a new one.

Turley says he has seen those bad actors in the industry, “providing poor product, producing just to produce with no purpose.” He operates directly opposite how a snake oil salesman would, he says, using his business as a conduit to continue to raise awareness, foremost.

“I could care less about the business, I could care less about the million dollars worth of product I’ve sold in this business in just a little bit over a year,” Turley says. “If you’re going to talk about it, you have to be about it, and there needed to be a shift in presentation of this product, of this unbelievably medicinal plant so that it could be palatable. And nobody as I was going around this industry was doing that.”

But there, again, is the rub: A good huckster can be indistinguishable from an earnest man who says he’s trying to make a better world.

Cannabis distinguishes itself from alcohol and tobacco in several significant ways. It has never been definitively linked to a death by overdose, nor to lung cancer. However, it is far from perfect. It has been linked to respiratory, psychological, and dependency problems with heavy use. Adolescents who use cannabis are actually more likely to misuse opioids. And though the state of Colorado has benefited in many ways from the legalization of recreational cannabis use, it has also seen a worrisome spike in traffic fatalities.

The 2013-16 period saw a 40 percent increase in the number of all drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado, from 627 to 880, according to the NHTSA data. Those who tested positive for alcohol in fatal crashes from 2013 to 2015 — figures for 2016 were not available — grew 17 percent, from 129 to 151.

By contrast, the number of drivers who tested positive for marijuana use jumped 145 percent — from 47 in 2013 to 115 in 2016. During that time, the prevalence of testing drivers for marijuana use did not change appreciably, federal fatal-crash data show.

“... For people to kind of accept the healing properties of cannabis, I really felt like the athletes were going to be the key to remove the stigma that’s been there.” —Ryan Kingsbury, founder of Athletes For Care

And yet, the potential benefits of cannabis legalization may be irresponsible to ignore. Doctors For Cannabis Regulation is an organization of physicians who support legalization efforts around the country, and acts as a face for the 76 percent of doctors who support medical cannabis, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. DFCR’s Declaration of Principles points out that there are more than 700,000 cannabis arrests in the United States every year — disproportionately for people of color — and that access to legal cannabis coincides with a reduction in opioid overdoses.

And in order to drive its platform, DFCR has partnered with former NFL players, penning an open letter to the league in 2016, asking it to revisit its cannabis policy. The partnership began when Eugene Monroe approached Dr. Sue Sisley, one of DFCR’s board members, to see if the organization would support his call for cannabis research.

They were perhaps a perfect match: The DFCR found that by backing the former players against the league, it was also essentially fighting a proxy war against America’s own draconian cannabis policy. Players are stand-ins for the people cannabis criminalization most negatively affects: Not only are they nearly 75 percent black, but former players are also disproportionately afflicted with opioid addiction.

“When you look at the NFL and its policy, it’s an interesting microcosm of larger policy,” says DFCR’s executive director Brian Muraresku. “It’s a way for us to engage the argument around drug policy for folks who might not necessarily think in those terms, or be familiar with the larger debate, which is our whole interest — taking the debate beyond the field, especially during a national opioid crisis.”

The effectiveness of the pro-cannabis side of the debate depends on America’s ability to believe — just this once, after decades of being sold bills of goods — that something isn’t too good to be true. It sounds farfetched, and yet here we are, at the outset of an age of cannabis, with people like Turley poised as shepherds. To argue that cannabis doesn’t help would be to deny their pain.

“I’m not afraid,” Turley says. “I’ve faced suicide, I’ve stolen the last few years of my life thanks to this plant and the good Lord and my beautiful wife. So whatever. Fuck off.”

Washington compares this moment to the Wright brothers taking off at Kitty Hawk. It’s a helluva sell.

“We’re still cranking our plane up at this stage,” he says. “But imagine this industry, imagine this sector, imagine this space when we get to the twin engine, and the jet age in 10, 20, 30 years from now. It’s going to be unbelievable.

“And Bob Marley always says cannabis can heal the world and can heal a nation. I believe it.”

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