The public health consequences of opioid abuse have captured considerable attention among policy makers and the press in recent years, yet there remains no clear consensus on how best to address the issue. As the search for solutions continues, professional sports are providing a new forum for the growing debate over whether medical marijuana can play a role in providing safer pain management:
(CNN) NFL running back Mike James calls it his medicine for pain management, but league officials call it a banned substance. Now, James’ athletic career is hanging in limbo because he chose pot over pills.
In 2013, James was prescribed opioid painkillers after injuring his left ankle in a Monday night football game. Within weeks, he developed a dangerous dependency on the drugs.
To get off of the opioids, he turned to medical marijuana for his pain.
James’s story is, in so many ways, familiar to us. What began with a painful injury and a doctor’s prescription soon evolved into a cycle of dependence. As the injury healed, a different and more complicated health challenge slowly took hold. This trade-off is one our patients have described to us on countless occasions. Similarly, the sense of hope that returned to James’s life when he discovered that medical marijuana could treat his pain without devastating side effects is one our patients have shared with us as well.
Still, for James and many others, the challenge of accessing medical marijuana and educating others about its benefits remains. He became the first NFL player to seek the right to medical marijuana treatment through a therapeutic use exemption and was denied by the NFL. His career prospects are now placed on hold, and others dealing with injuries in professional football are receiving a message that opioid drugs are permitted, but a promising alternative is not.
Fortunately, James has vowed to continue advocating on behalf of himself and others who rely on medical marijuana to relieve their pain and improve their quality of life. His predicament mirrors that of many Americans whose challenges are less public, but just as poignant in the discussion of medical marijuana’s potential to reduce the harms of opioid prescriptions. The stigma that many patients feel when discussing medical marijuana with employers and health care providers is very real, but the importance of this treatment option is also recognized by more Americans than ever before. As new voices and new data continue to inform the conversation, we’re hopeful that a day is coming when no patient who needs medical marijuana will be told they can’t consider it.