Rarely do active professional athletes speak so openly against the policies of the leagues for which they play. But for Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Eugene Monroe, the dangers of opioids prescribed to NFL players for pain management – and the potential for a healthier alternative in medical marijuana – is too important to his long-term health to stay silent.
Monroe recently visited Arizona in support of Dr. Sue Sisley, who will soon conduct a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration-approved study of the impact of medical marijuana on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Part of the study is to be conducted in Phoenix. Monroe recently donated $80,000 to Johns Hopkins University for medical marijuana research.
What brings you to Arizona?
Recently, I met Dr. Sue Sisley at an event in California, and since have been building a relationship and become very interested in some of her work, particularly the research that Dr. Sisley’s doing in regards to helping treat veterans using medical cannabis. I’ve been advocating myself for the use of medical cannabis in the NFL, which currently bans the use of marijuana for any reasons. I think that in our league we need to take a more progressive stance and offer players a healthier treatment option than the pharmaceutical pills that we’re currently prescribed for our injuries and afflictions.
What’s problematic with the painkillers that team doctors currently prescribe to players?
Opioid drugs are administered to players much like they’re administered to anyone in the country. However, we experience a greater deal of injury and chronic pain than the general population, and so in turn we’re prescribed those pills at a higher rate. And we know that these drugs aren’t as safe as doctors once believed. The (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) even stepped in and offered new guidelines for how they should be administered, which is on a much lower frequency than they currently are. It’s a huge problem. They are dangerously addictive drugs that can even lead to death.
What are the effects that you’ve seen, perhaps personally or in others, of opioids?
One that I’m very fearful of is addiction, and I’ve talked to former players — current players don’t speak really about any of the struggles that they’re enduring while they’re active athletes — but former players who retire speak vividly about it. Most specifically, the story of Kyle Turley, who was a former NFL all-pro lineman, played the same position that I play now, became addicted to those pills while he was playing. They became a detriment to his career. And also, when he was done playing, he’s still in pain, so he’s still taking these prescription pills. It almost ruined his life. He almost took his own life. And he’s been able to eliminate all of the pills he was prescribed by taking cannabis.
What will it take for the NFL to change course? Commissioner Roger Goodell has referenced the federal government’s stance on marijuana as reason for continuing to test players for marijuana as an illegal substance.
I don’t believe our policies in the NFL really have anything to do with the federal scheduling of cannabis. It’s simply a matter of removing testing. And in states where NFL cities are located that are legalized for medical cannabis, those players have the option to be prescribed medical cannabis by certified doctors.
So you’re not suggesting the NFL take a stance of allowing players on any team to be prescribed medical marijuana?
The NFL certainly can’t supersede the federal government, and in states that medical marijuana is not legalized yet, unfortunately players on those teams won’t have access. But by the end of the year, over half the country will have access to medical cannabis. And in fact, there’s some states that have ballot initiatives this year that have multiple NFL teams. So this isn’t something that’s far-fetched, this isn’t something where if they stop testing, players wouldn’t have access. They would in some areas. And if you look at the past teams that have won the Super Bowl since 2012 — including Baltimore, which has passed legislation as well — they’re all in states that have medical marijuana programs.
Do you use marijuana?
I don’t. Medical marijuana is not allowed. If we’re tested positive for marijuana, there’s an escalating scale of punishments, and in some cases you see careers ended because of it.
How could medical marijuana effectively be administered to NFL athletes?
We’re seeing in some places in our country medical cannabis used in harm-reduction therapy to even break people’s addiction to opioids. I think that it would take NFL doctors to become educated on the benefits of cannabis and how to responsibly administer it. And in states where it’s legalized, those NFL teams, the doctors on those teams have another tool in their tool kit to treat their players in a healthier fashion.
Do you have concerns about the potential for players to abuse marijuana if they start to take it medicinally?
We know that cannabis has addictive potential, but it’s less than the opioid drugs that players are currently prescribed, and even less than some other drugs that are legalized. That’s why we would have certified doctors responsibly prescribe medical marijuana to athletes. This isn’t a free-for-all, this is athletes that are dealing with a great deal of chronic pain, a great deal of injury, that need a healthier option to treat those things.
One of the common refrains heard from Arizonans who opposed legalizing marijuana medically, and now oppose legalizing it recreationally, is the impact on children. Could athletes using medical marijuana send the wrong message to the children who idolize them?
We already are using drugs medically and are prescribed by doctors. And we don’t want to send the message to kids that taking opioids for pain is OK, but we also aren’t talking about prescribing children marijuana. We’re talking about a responsible prescription for adult use.
You’ve been outspoken on this topic for months. Are you concerned about pushback from NFL executives or from the Baltimore Ravens?
I’m not concerned with any ramifications that my advocacy may bring. I have a family, I’m a husband, I have three beautiful children and I want to be active for my family for the long term. And my health and wellness future are far more important than any ramifications that may come for speaking openly about medical marijuana.