As an athlete in high school, I was proud of the fact that I didn’t drink often and never did any drugs. I tried a clove cigarette once during my senior year. While I liked the smell, I hated the taste. It was a badge of pride; I believed my body was a temple, and I really wanted to get a college scholarship.
And I wasn’t the only one. All across the country in the 1990s, we were fed “All drugs are bad, mmmkay?” They told us “mare-wanna” (cannabis) was a gateway drug and warned that it was dangerous and addictive. Those of us who wanted to excel at sports or academics and who believed the hype steered clear.
So, for some athletes to claim that cannabis has saved their lives…well, it seems counterintuitive at first. But, when you delve into the details, it makes all the sense in the world.
Opening up a canna-propaganda
Before we talk about the truth, let’s talk about the lies. Gateway drug? Gateway to what—the LESS dangerous substances on the LOWER schedules, like crack and PCP? That’s a gateway to laughs. The fact is, most people who consume cannabis never move on hard drugs. Cannabis also is becoming increasingly accepted as legitimate medication by many physicians, government officials, parents, and the rest of America. Folks are breaking out the bud to break out of habitual drinking and taking opioids and other pain relievers whose side effects are as debilitating as the chronic pain they are supposed to relieve.
The dangers of cannabis? Despite what you may have read about cannabis-induced risk aversion, driving slower, and fewer fatalities than drunk drivers, never toke and drive. Beyond that, the herb is stubbornly non-toxic. In world history there is no documented case of lethal overdose from cannabis alone. The common side effects are well known and generally tolerable. If it’s smoked, it can irritate the lungs or throat. When consumed via edibles, apart from becoming sleepy, thirsty, hungry, or unpleasantly strung out for a day from pulling a Dowd and guzzling a week’s supply, there’s not much danger to speak of. Like anything else pleasant, the danger lies in enjoying it too much, to the exclusion of other things. That’s not a cannabis characteristic, but rather a human one.
Is it addictive? Again, while anything that brings pleasure can become a habit, the vast majority of even regular users will never develop dependency. Physical withdrawal symptoms upon suddenly stopping after years of daily use are typically either nonexistent or mild and short-lived, akin to quitting caffeine.
Rest and recovery
Now let’s talk about the benefits of cannabis for athletes. Muscles are torn in the gym, fed in the kitchen, and grown in the bedroom during sleep. Rest and recovery have become a primary focus of competitive athletes over the past few years. An indica-dominant strain consumed after a workout can help an athlete calm down, relax, and fall asleep more easily. While cannabis isn’t necessarily a performance enhancer during competition, it helps the body restore and heal.
There are lots of long-distance runners and weightlifters who swear that consuming edibles before a long workout can help relieve the tedium, while also enhancing various aspects of the experience. Remember the movie Pumping Iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger? Yep, the governator inhaled. Cannabis also has anti-inflammatory properties, which aid in pain relief and in healing joints. (Pun intended.)
The most impactful benefits that are really making a difference and saving lives in sports are seen in the area of cannabis and concussions.
Everyone has seen punch-drunk boxers on TV or heard about former NFL football players who commit suicide, or hockey players who can barely balance. Recurring head trauma, especially after an athlete has sustained a concussion, constitute a widespread danger in sports.
Repeated concussions or blows to the head can result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that includes memory loss, depression, and dementia. Of the NFL players who have committed suicide, almost all were found to be suffering from CTE.
The NFL has taken steps to study the issue. They changed both the protocol for treating suspected concussions and the rules regarding allowable tackles. Yet, head injuries abound. And football isn’t the only sport.
Who’s at risk?
Boxers, kickboxers, and mixed martial-arts (MMA) fighters, of course. Rugby, Australian rules football, team handball, basketball, and soccer players, who all play without headgear. Most folks don’t associate soccer with concussions, but heading the ball and two players trying to occupy the same space at the same time happen frequently enough. With no helmets, concussions are common.
Other sports could rival American football in this regard, such as lacrosse, ice hockey, and…water polo? That’s right: A recent University of California study found that 36 percent of collegiate water polo players had sustained concussions. More astonishing, an incredible 60 percent of the goalies reported multiple concussions!
In lacrosse, concussions from being hit with a stick or ball are very rare. Instead, they result mainly from using the helmet as a weapon to initiate head-to-head contact.
And, while hockey players have less than one third of the space of soccer players to maneuver in, and travel at twice the speed with greater mass, they do not try to avoid one another. Collisions are a permanent fixture, and most of them cause no injury. Players’ heads are nonetheless in constant danger of contact with the puck, sticks, other players, the boards and plexiglass surrounding the rink, and the ice surface. They may also occasionally take a punch during the odd scuffle, an event becoming rarer in modern hockey.
Cannabis: good for the head
Veterans of these sports—and of the military as well—are increasingly concerned about CTE and are actively seeking ways to combat the condition. And cannabis has become a strong contender for CTE medicine of the decade.
Lester Grinspoon, M.D. is an Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who was a psychiatrist at Massachusetts Mental Health Center for 40 years. In 2014 Dr. Grinspoon wrote an open letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. In it, he stated: “The NFL should pay some attention to the fact that we are now pretty confident that cannabis, marijuana, has as a medicine some qualities about it which make it clear that it is neuro-protective.”
Professor Grinspoon went on to clarify, however, that he was not referring to just any strain of cannabis. “We are talking about a particular formulation of the cannabinoids, that is, a formulation which is largely made of CBD and to a much lesser extent THC, and of course along with it other phytochemicals, like terpenoids, that come from the marijuana bud. And these three components work in an ensemble effect.”
NFL players have been the most vocal supporters of cannabis treatments since 2014. But other athletes are emerging who have experienced the healing properties of the bud first-hand. In May hockey veterans Darren McCarty and Larry DePalma joined ranks in support of a legalization measure in Michigan.
Larry DePalma: laughing and loving life, thanks to herb
On April 20 (International Cannabis Day), 2016, Larry DePalma spoke with Rick Thompson of the Compassion Chronicles and discussed how medical cannabis saved his life. DePalma was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) as well as CTE. Over the course of a 13-year pro hockey career, he counts eight major concussions and innumerable so-called “normal” concussions.
DePalma tried all the prescription drugs like Xanax and pain relievers, but nothing the doctors prescribed worked. He tried self-medicating with alcohol. All that did was exacerbate the situation. Substance abuse led to legal troubles.
DePalma got to a point where the pain and other issues caused uncontrollable rage. He was close to doing something that he would regret all his life, which could have been tragically short. He put a gun to his head three times, thankfully never pulling the trigger.
When Michigan finally legalized medical cannabis, DePalma gave it a try. And it worked miracles for him. He said it helped his gout, his depression, his rage, “everything, all of the above.” He continued:
“I was up to, I don’t know how many Xanax and Norco a day…eight to nine a day, and I just got sick of it. Because when you come off of it you can die. With alcohol, I drank too much. But when I started smoking [cannabis], it just completely chilled me out. And I know when I’m about to get a headache I better start smoking it. They have all kinds of medications out there. I just kind of laugh at every one of them…except cannabis.”
Athletes are rough on their bodies. All sports can take a physical toll, from curling and croquet to hurling and hockey. And, if they had it to do over, most athletes—even when their bodies are broken—wouldn’t go back and change a thing. But they should have every right to find the best medication for the job. Until cannabis is legal in all 50 states, we are denying our champions the right to a long and productive life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amber Boone considers writing the cornerstone of communication. She interviews MMA (mixed martial arts) athletes for CombatPress.com and opines on MMA at FightItOut.com. She’s passionate about helping folks tell their stories and making the world a better place, which includes working to win the freedom of Americans to partake of the herb. When not writing or playing beach volleyball, she can be found at her day job—for now. Follow Amber on Twitter @thruthetrees11.