Op-Ed: It’s time for government to stop restricting scientific research into marijuana

Tiki Barber | July 26, 2021 | Opinion
Former New York Giants running back applauds funding of marijuana research by NFL and players association. Calls for federal government to unchain the science
Tiki Barber

About six years into my career with the NFL, a trainer told us that we would all start getting blood tests to check our liver function. We were all healthy football players, mostly in our twenties. Why did we need liver function tests?

The trainers knew the medications that soothed our aches, pains and injuries could take a toll on our internal organs, such as the liver and kidneys. There were opioids. There were also nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Some were prescription pain relievers, some over-the-counter.

After those tests, I became far more wary about what I put in my body. But as a football player, you also want to stay on the field and keep your job. You take the medications that keep you playing. For players, then and now, opioids are a legal and well-accepted choice for pain relief. And guys, pumped after the emotional roller coaster of a professional football game, often turn to another drug to find equilibrium when they got home: alcohol.

After years on the field, though, many players I knew began to see marijuana as the safest and best intervention for pain relief and stress management.

Chronic pain

That’s why I applaud the NFL and the NFL Players Association for jointly announcing $1 million in research grants to explore pain management and cannabis. The research could have value far beyond the football field — as an estimated 20% of Americans live with chronic pain.

But research dollars such as those from the NFL and the NFL Players Association will only go so far if the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. That classification includes dangerous and addictive drugs, including heroin. The federal government says cannabis has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. (Even cocaine is not a Schedule 1 drug.)

Researchers who study marijuana risk losing their medical licenses since marijuana remains illegal on the federal level — even though medicinal cannabis is legal in 36 states. The federal government continues to enforce restrictive regulations on marijuana research.

It seems to me that if the NFL — an all-American organization if there ever was one — can fund marijuana research, then the government can open the door to quality science. Scientists should be able to study the marijuana that patients are taking every day at legal Alternative Treatment Centers. Right now, they can’t. The supply researchers can legally study is severely restricted by federal regulations. Researchers are hindered at every turn. The NFL and the NFL Players Association want to look objectively at safety and effectiveness, as well at how cannabis could affect performance. Marijuana’s Drug Enforcement Administration classification must change for research like this to be most effective.

Not advocating for use

I volunteer on the advisory board of the New Jersey-based Cannabis Education and Research Institute (CERI) because the nonprofit organization is committed to objective research. Our board and advisory board of experts in science, medicine and public policy support clinical trials about efficacy, dose, routes of administration, and side effects.

I also joined because CERI works to protect patient access to medicinal strains of cannabis. That’s critical in New Jersey after voters chose to legalize adult-use marijuana last year. As New Jersey moves toward recreational marijuana, we’re concerned supply for medicinal patients will be limited. High-quality research will be necessary to support the medicinal market and to learn more about what really works for patients who are suffering.

I am not suggesting that NFL players or anyone else should use medicinal marijuana for medical conditions. I personally am not a medicinal or recreational consumer. But I do think we need to learn more about how people may benefit from this ancient botanical — whether they suffer from cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, or a sports-related injury.

Public opinion on marijuana is evolving quickly. Marijuana is legal recreationally in 17 states, two territories and Washington, D.C. The narrative is changing. The federal government’s classification of marijuana needs to change, too.

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