On June 8, the National Football League (NFL) and league’s players’ union announced they would be joining forces to award $1 million dollars (USD) in grants, specifically for research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, CBD, and other alternatives to opioids for treating pain.  Further, the coalition are hoping for validated data surrounding cannabis for traumatic injuries, it’s potential for muscle recovery and relief from inflammation.

Cannabis for Athletes

The announcement comes at a tipping point in the ‘cannabis for athletes’ debate, with professional outfits such as the NBA, NHL and UFC all softening their stance on cannabis products; some going as far as announcing they will no longer test for THC. Furthermore, the World Anti-Doping Association has removed CBD from their prohibited substance list.

The implications of an increasingly liberal approach to cannabis in sports extends beyond medical research and into the broader culture, mainstream acceptance and even legislative reform.

First and foremost, the move can provide some confidence, albeit anecdotal, that cannabis provides as measurable benefit to athletes. And it is more than the $1M investment at stake. The reality is, right or wrong, that high performing athletes have access to some of the best medical and nutritional brains in the business.  

For a multi-billion-dollar organisation to be willing to have their most important resources, the players, use cannabis products one can assume they have done their due diligence. Of course, the athletes themselves have agency and are arguably more in tune with their physiology than most people on earth. Lakers’ megastar, LeBron James, famously spends over one million dollars on his body annually. A reasonable investment given the billion-dollar empire he has amassed off the back of this athletic career. 

Given the physical and financial rewards available to superstar athletes, it is safe to assume they are not simply falling for a modern 'Snake Oil'.  Rather, they are across the science, listen to their bodies and concluding there is serious merit to cannabis for athletes, especially when medicinal benefits such as its anti-inflammatory properties are considered.

Of course, our esteemed athletes are more than just entertainers.  They are on the forefront of culture and politics, in turn making them opinion leaders in their own right.  For the masses to witness business savvy super athletes embracing, and even advocating, for cannabis as a medicine has a direct impact on how it is perceived in the broader society.  Further, with organisation such as the NFL to know be spending their precious profits on the research should be enough to silence the “shut up and dribble” crowd.

What About Australia?

Perhaps the main question we should be asking ourselves is, “when will Australian athletes get on board?”  The answer is a tricky one.  

As such, amateur and professional athletes alike are able to use CBD to treat a plethora of conditions.  However, despite our national sports being arguable the most physically demanding of any professional leagues, uptake of CBD for recovery, pain management, sleep regulation or even anxiety is relatively low amongst Aussie athletes.  One might assume that this is due to the hurdles patients and doctors have to go through to receive a prescription.  

However, with the increase of Telehealth platforms (like Canwell) and the rise of cannabis specific doctors, access is at an all time high. Unfortunately, stigma also seems to still remain high and the regressive domestic policies only serve to reinforce the concerns Australia’s have around plant medicine. Will sports be the vessel of change once again, as it has so often in the past? That’s certainly the goal.