Article by Sam Riches, Growth Op
Hervé Damas’ National Football League career ended in his rookie season.
A 6-foot, 235-pound linebacker, Damas signed a free-agent deal with the Buffalo Bills in 1995 out of Hofstra University, where he had been the team captain and an All-American.
In his first year in professional football, however, he tore three ligaments in his right knee, including his anterior cruciate ligament.
“You don’t really recover from those things, especially not back in 1995,” Damas tells The GrowthOp.
The injury ended his football ambitions but it also gave him insight into how the league handled pain management at that time, including everything from mandatory drug testing to ensure players were avoiding cannabis, to doling out painkillers with little thought or care to the long term impacts.
A 2011 study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence that involved 644 former NFL players found that, in retirement, the former players continued to use pain killers at rate four times higher than the general population. More than 70 per cent of the players surveyed said they misused opioids during their playing days.
With the stigma surrounding cannabis use on the decline, last March, the NFL began changing its approach to pot. Players can no longer be suspended for testing positive for cannabis, the testing window is now limited to the first two weeks of training camp and the threshold to trigger a positive result was increased from 35 nanograms of THC per millilitre of urine to 150 nanograms, bringing it in line with the standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
For the league’s former players, though, these changes arrive too late. Opioid addiction, career-ending suspensions, lost contracts and endorsement deals, extended rehab stays, alienation from fans, teammates, even their own families, are just some of the ripple effects of the league’s long-held punitive approach to pot.
In February, the NFL and the NFL Players Association Pain Management Committee issued a request for more information regarding pain management alternatives to opioids, including CBD. Signalling, that perhaps finally, the league was willing to listen to the data and science and give medical cannabis a fair hearing.
Damas is now a physician in Miami, where he founded Grassroots Medicine and Wellness, a medical cannabis clinic and health centre. He has a few ideas to share.
Following last season’s policy changes, Eugene Monroe, a former offensive lineman with the Baltimore Ravens and one of the first players to challenge the NFL’s stance on pot, which effectively ended his career, told theNew York Timesthat the new agreement left a lot to be desired.
“Why are they still testing at all?” Monroe said. “I don’t understand. Just move on from this and do the right thing and let the players make the choice.”
Dr. Damas aligns with that perspective. He calls the changes to the league’s cannabis policy mostly symbolic gestures. The request for more information, though, he believes, is the league showing that they’re interested in having a more nuanced conversation about the role cannabis can play in athlete’s lives.
Former players, he says, are a resource that should help chart the future course of America’s most popular sport.
“As I get older, my body’s killing me. I’m 49 now, and I’ve got all types of stuff,” Dr. Damas says. “I have to use CBD, I literally have to use it, or my life will be miserable.”
He’s not the only one who feels that way. Many of his patients are former players and not all are in the position to afford medical cannabis and CBD products. Getting current and former players on benefits plans that cover those costs, which can add up to thousands of dollars annually, would be “something of great value” to them, he says. “A lot of the players are in financial distress, so having medical benefits would be really, really, really big.”
The league’s anti-cannabis stance and reliance on painkillers and opioids has done more harm than help over the years, he says.
“[The NFL has] harmed a lot of people. Getting vilified, getting kicked out of the league because you’re smoking weed,” he says. “It’s nonsense.”
The demands of football, both physical and psychological, are immense. Cannabis, for some players, can be a source of relief. And while pain management is a major driver of cannabis use among players, there are other factors to consider, such as mental health.
“We had a lot of guys with really serious problems that they were self-medicating with cannabis,” he says, reflecting back on his own playing days and the league’s view of cannabis at that time. “Post-concussion syndrome, anxiety, PTSD. Problems that we had growing up, childhood traumas. Remember that cannabis use doesn’t start in the pros, right? It starts in adolescence, in high school and college.”
He recalls some teammates routinely smoking after practice, either due to pain, or the psychological burden of their vocation. That relief would be short-lived, however, especially as training camp approached and mandatory drug testing loomed.
Forcing players to abstain from cannabis during those first few months of the season put them in a precarious position, where they were less likely to succeed, Dr. Damas says.
“This little gift gives a therapeutic benefit and, right before training camp, you’ve got to stop using it just because these guys want you to. So, if you’re having headaches, they’re going to come back. If you’ve got social anxiety, or some other personality disorder, like Ricky Williams did, it’s going to come back. If you have insomnia, it’s going to come back.”
What that stance shows, he says, is a lack of understanding about the medical properties of cannabis, and specifically the role it can play in treating mental health.
For Dr. Damas, he avoided cannabis for most of his life. It wasn’t until he started medical school, at age 37, that his own health issues made him reconsider the plant.
In his first semester, he began experiencing debilitating migraines and insomnia. He tried Tylenol and Acetaminophen but they did little to help.
At that point in his life, he still didn’t think of cannabis as a therapeutic option. He’d seen so many of his peers brought down by cannabis use in the past, not because of the plant, specifically, but because of the implications, the illegality and the stigma that still surrounds it.
Anxiety was the next condition that followed. He found some relief in exercise, and then pushed it to the limit, running seven miles a day, lifting heavy weights three days a week, until he got injured and once again had to go under the knife.