Can Weed Make You a Better Athlete?

Players say they smoke after games, after practice and throughout the season. Can they convince leagues and lawmakers of the positives of pot?
photo of Natalie WeinerNatalie WeinerStaff WriterAugust 1, 2017

Cannabis is the perfect medicine for athletes," says retired NFL offensive lineman Eben Britton over the phone, stating matter-of-factly what's still, generally, considered taboo. (In the world of modern cannabis advocacy, you're never talking about "weed," "pot," "marijuana," or [insert slang term here]. It's cannabis.)

"This is not some back-alley street drug," he continues. "It's a medicinal herb that provides the only potential solution to both concussions/CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and the opiate epidemic."

That hypothesis is the impetus behind Athletes For Care, a new nonprofit of which Britton—alongside 26 other athletes from the NFL, NBA, NHL and UFC—is a founding member. The organization is dedicated to promoting a holistic, alternative approach to athlete wellness, both for those still playing and retirees. Cannabis is but one part of the wellness package—albeit an important one.

Eben Britton in 2014
Eben Britton in 2014Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Many of the athletes involved, including former NFL players Eugene Monroe and Nate Jackson, already have a history of cannabis advocacy. The goal of Athletes For Care is to allow them to come together and create what Britton calls a "safe space" for athletes interested in alternative medicine, as well as those simply looking for support after leaving the infrastructure of professional sports.

"Meeting all these other athletes who are doing the same thing made me realize, 'No, I'm not crazy,'" says Riley Cote, a retired NHL player and another founding member.

Cote and his partners at Athletes For Care may not be the minority for long or, depending on who you ask, the vocal face of a silent majority. As marijuana decriminalization becomes increasingly common and the dangers of being a professional athlete get more exposure—particularly in the NFL, where opioid abuse, painkiller abuse and concussion risks frequently grab national headlines—athletes and cannabis have entered a marriage of convenience, if nothing else.

"If your bread and butter is your body, you need to find a sustainable way to keep performing at a high level—I learned that the hard way," says Cote. The former Philadelphia Flyer says that because he couldn't use cannabis—his preferred form of pain management—while on the road, he "started falling off track a little bit" with team-supplied painkillers. "If I could have done it the way I wanted," he adds, "cannabis would have been the way I always managed my pain, sleep and anxiety."

Riley Cote in 2008
Riley Cote in 2008Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Plenty of athletes have apparently come to that same conclusion. Britton estimates that a minimum of 50 percent of NFL players use cannabis and says it's fairly easy not to get caught despite what the omnipresent suspensions for violating the league's substance-abuse policy would suggest.

"There were guys who I'd smoke with after practice or after games," Britton says.

The league only tests once a year, randomly during the offseason, and a player needs to fail multiple tests to get suspended. If it were any more strict, Britton says, "half the league would be suspended for drug use."

"You can smoke as much weed as you want throughout the season—the test is just about 'protecting the shield.'" 

The NFL recently reached out to the NFLPA about studying "the potential use of marijuana as a pain management tool," per a new report from the Washington Post. (The NFLPA was unavailable to comment on the report but has previously advocated to reform the league's policy in favor of therapeutic cannabis use.)

Overreliance on painkillers isn't just an NFL issue, though, as UFC fighter Bas Rutten—another member of Athletes For Care—knows all too well. "They just destroyed my life," he says of the up to eight OxyContin he was ingesting a day. "I almost fell asleep behind the wheel. My blood pressure was up, I was sweating at night...finally, I said, 'I gotta stop this stuff.'"

Richard Vogel/Associated Press

He started consuming cannabis, specifically cannabidiols or CBDs—in other words, the non-THC, non-psychoactive part of cannabis. Rutten was an instant convert and estimates that 80 percent of UFC fighters use cannabis to recuperate. "There's nothing worse than getting injured and taking a pain pill," he says now. "It actually makes things worse."

Anecdotally, cannabis sounds like a miracle drug. The problem is corroborating that with science, given that the plant's Schedule 1 status makes it difficult to research in a lab-controlled setting. Athletes For Care has partnered with The Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University to advocate for that kind of research.

"We're dedicated to addressing the areas for which cannabis therapy is hyped without a whole lot of evidence to support it," says Dr. Charles Pollack, the center's director. "Some of those areas are in recovery from acute injury and in dealing with and perhaps preventing chronic traumatic encephalopathy."

Dan Joling/Associated Press

The task of corroborating the glowing anecdotal reports is daunting: Not only do researchers need to get past the DEA's arduous review process (on that front, international researchers have an advantage), the sheer volume of ways to consume the drug means getting generalizable data will be an ongoing task. "There's a tremendous amount of variation among patients and sometimes even within patients," says Dr. Pollack. "We don't have enough information to make sweeping statements, other than to say that responses vary by individual and by type and route of exposure."

One of the more seductive potential uses for cannabis—at least for NFL fans—is in preventing CTE. "We do know from animal models that CBD itself is neuroprotective," says Dr. Pollack, "but we don't know to what extent that extends to humans."

The players, though, already believe in its potential. "It's anecdotal, but I've been in over 250 fights in my life—taken a lot of head trauma," says Cote. "I believe the cannabinoids I consumed while I was playing protected my brain." Adds Britton: "The guys who consume cannabis through their football careers are going to be in much better shape coming out of them than the guys that don't."

Bas Rutten in 2015
Bas Rutten in 2015Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

What about performance—could cannabis consumption actually increase physical performance? Anecdotal evidence suggests it's possible; however, science doesn't yet support these claims. "Athletes may feel better if they're high when they're playing," says Dr. Pollack, "but I don't think there's any evidence whatsoever to suggest it actually improves performance."

The drug's success as an unobtrusive pain reliever, though, might make players better able to play through injuries. "In the sports business, if you get hurt, someone's taking your job," says Cote. While it's not adding inches to players' vertical leaps or shaving seconds off their 40-yard dash times, if cannabis can help an athlete stay on the field pain-free without the dangerous side effects of other drugs, it's possible it has, in effect, made that person a better athlete. As the saying goes—the best ability is availability.

The theory that cannabis is a supplement that supports both physical and mental wellness hasn't been studied much, but it's something all the athletes at Athletes For Care are passionate about. "Where painkillers cloud thinking, cannabis allowed me to play with a clear mind," says Britton.

"Preventative medicine is key, the psychoactivity of it all is just a bonus," adds Cote.

The athletes also agree (somewhat ominously) that cannabis should be used as part of a healthy lifestyle and is not a cure-all. "Cannabis is a huge part of my daily regimen," Britton says. "Exercise, nutrition, meditation, fasting—I'm approaching my physical and mental health from all sides because of the realities that I'm potentially facing with CTE."

David Goldman/Associated Press

If you're imagining these athletes grabbing a bong to help get through their workouts, you've got the wrong image. Microdosing via high-CBD vaporizer pens, tinctures, topicals and capsules are far more popular options. "It's in such small amounts that you hardly get any feeling besides the relief," says Cote. "I have a vape that's 85 percent CBD—it makes my body feel well," adds Marvin Washington, retired NFL player and another Athletes For Care founder. "When I stand up, I don't have to unwind myself. I can just stand up."

The trouble, of course, is the law. Washington is one of five plaintiffs in a just-announced lawsuit against the Department of Justice, suing for the legalization of marijuana. For Washington, who'd never consumed cannabis before learning it could be therapeutic years after he retired, the suit is personal. "I'm doing it for my culture because I'm an African-American," he says. "African-Americans and Caucasians consume cannabis at the same rate, but African-Americans get arrested seven times more."

"I'm not a criminal, and I don't want to go to federal prison for this plant," he concludes. "All I want to do is help people."

In states where cannabis is legalized, though, it's a business opportunity—one that investors are all too eager to get athletes involved in. After all, if you're marketing a supplement, who better to sell it than someone who (at least from the outside) looks like the very picture of health?

"There are so many fake things out there—everybody's bought stuff that doesn't work, and it's a shame," says Rutten of the current cannabis industry, still struggling to find credibility in a period with no federal regulation. The issue of less-than-above-board cannabis companies even appears on the new season of HBO's Ballers—one of the athletes on the show receives a duffel of cash to wear a hoodie that says "High Powered."

One of the missions of Athletes For Care, according to Washington, is to help athletes "be partners, not just endorsers [and] make sure they're dealing with reputable companies." He had an early endorsement go wrong and is committed to helping younger athletes avoid repeating his mistakes.

A member of the Daya Foundation, a local non-profit organization, trims a cannabis plant at a lab in Santiago on April 7, 2015. Chile's congressional health committee approved a bill Monday that would legalize the cultivation of marijuana for private recr
MARTIN BERNETTI/Getty Images

More broadly, the athletes of Athletes For Care are hoping to help recent retirees adjust to life outside the game. "Your whole identity was being the name on the back of the jersey, and then suddenly no one knows who you are—you realize you're just a replaceable part," says Cote. "I think that's where guys struggle."

Where faith is tested, it's not unusual to encounter a considerable amount of evangelism, as evidenced by Cote's repeated use of the phrase "spread the good word." But for him and the other athletes now publicly fighting to make cannabis a legal, viable alternative to dangerous prescription treatments, the effects are worth shouting about. For the athletes involved, cannabis therapy feels like a way to not just survive a career in the pros, but thrive afterward. Concludes Cote: "As soon as you consume it, you become an instant believer."

He and the rest of these athletes are sure they're just ahead of the curve and are simply waiting for the leagues (and the laws) to catch up. When that happens, according to Rutten, "The world's gonna be a better place, let me tell you that."