The Complex Relationship Between Athletes and Marijuana


It takes a fair amount of blood, sweat, and tears – and a lot of pain – to reach the top in sport. So, should marijuana be removed from the banned-substance list in order to help with that pain? Former college athlete Treyous Jarrells thinks so, and he’s not alone.

He trained high. He played high. And he was never caught.

Treyous Jarrells was a running back at Colorado State University, where he averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2014. He then quit the team rather suddenly as the anxiety of being discovered using marijuana and subsequently losing his scholarship became too much for him.

Jarrells has now put his dream of playing football professionally behind him as he takes on a new – and different – challenge. He holds one of over 102,000 licenses to legally grow medical marijuana in Colorado. And he has now come out in favor of cannabis being removed from the sport’s banned substance list.

A Better Option?

The consumption of marijuana for medical purposes is legal in 25 states and Washington D.C. With many football players opting to pop painkillers such as ibuprofen before practice and games, Jarrells instead decided to use cannabis as a means of managing his chronic pain brought about by over a decade of football.

Speaking to the Coloradoan, Jarrells called marijuana his medicine and claimed its benefits came without any side effects, unlike the liver damage associated with opioid use and abuse.

And he’s not alone in his assertion that cannabis should be thought of as a better alternative to the painkillers being used to keep aches and pains at bay. A crop of current and former National Football League players are adding their voices to the call that the NFL undertake more research on marijuana and its place within organized sport.

Yet for all of the encouragement from the likes of Eugene Monroe (former Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle) and Jim McMahon (former Chicago Bears quarterback), the league’s commissioner Roger Goodell is, so far, unmoved. Prior to last February’s Super Bowl, Goodell said that the league would always review its drug policy and that there had been talks in the past about the use of medical marijuana but that he did not envision any change to the policy in the near future.

He also went on to say that the league’s medical experts have studied the issue but that they continue to believe that the ban should remain in place for NFL players.

College-level Opioid Use

This discussion of athletes and marijuana comes against the backdrop of an ongoing issue regarding the widespread usage of opiates to relieve pain.

The Coloradoan obtained records showing that, between 2013 and 2016, Colorado State University had ordered a combined 19,000 painkillers for its near 400 student athletes while the University of Colorado in Boulder had ordered a staggering 37,000 for around 350 student athletes.

Recent studies have suggested that medical marijuana could help stem the tide of opioid-led pain relief in the US and put a stop to the epidemic of overdoses. However, the bylaws of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the athletics policy of Colorado State University are both clear on the use of cannabis – it is against the rules.

In fact, CSU athletes must sign a drug policy consenting to random drug testing. A first positive test requires the student athlete to undergo counseling. A second results in a mandatory two-game suspension. And should the third strike occur, the student will find him or herself dismissed from the team.

Athletes and Marijuana – Firmly On the Sidelines?

As it is an NCAA-banned substance, marijuana-use among student athletes appears to be on the decline. However, the only time they are tested for THC by the NCAA is during championship events. Any other testing undertaken throughout the year is for performance-enhancing drugs.

The schools themselves may elect to test for marijuana in much the same way they might also test for alcohol, and at Colorado State, they test for all substances banned by the NCAA at least once a year.

A study by the NCAA from 2014 found that 22% of athletes in attendance at its 1200-plus member schools had used marijuana in 2013. This was down 1% from the previous study, which had been conducted four years earlier.

And the position taken by the NCAA is that there is no satisfactory scientific evidence to suggest that marijuana should be used for pain management, despite the fact that it has been legalized in 25 states and in D.C.

This stance has left student athletes in a precarious situation. They can either risk their scholarships and academic future by continuing to use marijuana, or they can turn to NCAA-approved pain remedies such as the previously mentioned opioids, which come with their own risks including organ failure, gastrointestinal bleeding, and addiction.

Even if the athlete lives and plays in one of the states where medical marijuana is legal, the NCAA’s rules are written in such a way that the student would be unable to obtain a doctor’s note to use cannabis for pain relief and be exempt from the NCAA drug testing.

Playing Through the Pain

Although Treyous Jarrells stepped away from college football, he still struggles with the pain inflicted upon him by the game he loves. But, according to the Coloradoan, he is finally happy.

He has turned his drive towards potential NFL success into an entrepreneurial spirit, which has resulted in him bottling and selling a spray to help cannabis plants grow and flourish. His business is now his primary focus.

Yet he seems to be aware of how his coming clean on using cannabis while still a CSU athlete will be perceived. He avoided punishment from the NCAA by getting out before being caught, but there are many athletes who won’t be as lucky.

They’ll continue to put their scholarships – and futures – in jeopardy by using marijuana. And the ones who do get caught will find themselves suspended or dismissed. Even in the states where marijuana is perfectly legal.

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