NFL and medical marijuana: A Q&A with former Eagles OL Todd Herremans

PHILADELPHIA -- The conversation about marijuana's place in the NFL is heating up.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that the NFL Players Association is working on a proposal that would amend the current drug policy to take a "less punitive" approach to recreational marijuana use among players, and the union's recently formed pain-management committee is studying whether the use of medical marijuana should be permissible. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith have discussed a potential change in the drug policy, which Goodell predicts will be part of the upcoming collective bargaining process.

In a recent poll conducted by ESPN, 71 percent of the 226 NFL players surveyed said that medical marijuana should be legal in all states; 61 percent stated that painkiller use would go down if marijuana use were allowed; 41 percent believe that marijuana is better for recovery and pain control (compared to 32 percent for painkillers); and 17 percent said they have used marijuana to help with concussion symptoms.

Todd Herremans, a former Eagles and Colts offensive lineman, has emerged as one of the top advocates for the use of marijuana as a form of pain management in the NFL. We conducted a Q&A with the 11-year veteran via email to get a better understanding of why he is in the pro-marijuana camp:

How did you first discover the benefits of marijuana for pain relief?

Todd Herremans: That actually happened more by chance. During college, I started to dabble into the world of cannabis -- recreationally, of course. I found it to be more enjoyable of an experience than drinking alcohol, mainly because I didn't have the lingering effects of alcohol the next day (i.e. hangover). This was important to me because of the training aspect of being a collegiate athlete. As time went on and years passed, I found myself in the NFL playing and was still enjoying cannabis from time to time. It wasn't until I failed a drug test and had it taken away from me that I really noticed the medical benefits of cannabis.

Explain what your body felt like when you were using marijuana as opposed to when you stopped.

Herremans: While I was using cannabis, my body felt normal. I didn't notice the daily discomfort that came with playing in the NFL. After failing the drug test and stopping my use, I gradually started to notice the wear and tear of the long season on my body with quite a few aches and pains. That was when it was evident to me that cannabis could be used to manage pain.

At what point in your career did you test positive for marijuana?

Herremans: I tested positive my second season. Spent my second and third year in the program. ... I stopped, as most players in the NFL do when they fail their first test. It just didn't seem worth it to me to let it affect my career. After the first positive test, you are put in the program and tested every week after. One more failed test, and my career would have been greatly altered or even ended.

Where did you turn for pain relief when marijuana was taken away as an option?

Herremans: That's the issue to me. ... There aren't many options. You either get the choice to "tough it out" or to take opiates.

Did you use painkillers pretty regularly after that?

Herremans: I never regularly used painkillers. Just during injury.

How long does the relief last after smoking, and in what ways does it soothe?

Herremans: The relief after smoking cannabis is fairly immediate, and the psychoactive part only sticks around for an hour or so. I'm not a scientist or a doctor; I am a football player that can only go off personal experiences. Having said that, in my experiences, after the "high" feeling fades, there are still a number of cannabinoids in the body going to work on a number of different issues for days after, including pain, stress, anxiety, sleep, etc., all known effects from playing in the NFL. For those who aren't too keen on smoking, there are plenty of other safe ways to ingest cannabis these days.

What type of opioids did the Eagles' training staff give you? Are you concerned about long-term health risks as a result of using them?

Herremans: Let me make this clear first, because I have a great relationship with and the utmost respect for all the doctors I have had: Doctors in the NFL are only giving us what they are allowed, so they are not at fault here. The type of opiates provided usually depended on the severity of the injury or the individual's tolerance to certain types of opiates. I feel like I was able to recognize a possible problem with them before it ever got to the point of abuse. I have had teammates who were not so lucky.

Which gave you greater pain relief: marijuana or opioids?

Herremans: I think they both give you relief, but different types of relief. To me, using opiates for aches and pains is likened to using a sledgehammer to drive a nail. Opioids can leave you with a certain "numb" feeling that may not have been needed to achieve relief. Cannabis is more of a subtle, appropriate treatment, in my humble opinion, likened to using a normal hammer to drive the nail.

You have mentioned that you have had teammates become addicted to opioids after taking them for NFL-related pain management. About how many teammates that you know of directly? What stories have you heard about the difficulties arising as a result of that addiction?

Herremans: It really is a sad topic. One in seven NFL players leaves the league with some sort of struggle with opioids. That is a horrific stat. I have seen teammates scouring the locker room looking for anyone with an opiate they could take just to make them stop shaking and feel normal so they can go out and practice. I only had a couple experiences firsthand seeing this in the locker room, and it's because they were people I was close to, but it was enough to know that it's a league-wide issue.

Are you still in pretty regular pain today? Describe it in detail if you can.

Herremans: The pain I deal with today is the same aches and pains I was dealing with for the last decade while I was playing. My ankles, knees, back, neck all have some sort of pain throughout the day, but not so severe to the point that I would take opiates for it.

Are you on any prescription medication for it?

Herremans: Well ... I am a resident of the state of Michigan, where cannabis is allowed to treat chronic pain, among other things. So I am on a medical marijuana prescription when I am in the state of Michigan, and Pennsylvania is coming along shortly, so I look forward to that. But other than that, I try to stay away from prescription anti-inflammatory drugs and opiates.

Do you find it has the same effectiveness, or has that waned over time?

Herremans: Recently, I had a little skiing injury, my first post-career injury, and I went to see the doc, and he handed me a prescription for Percocet. I never got it filled because I was able to manage the pain myself with my cannabis prescription. That being said, I still enjoy the personal use side of cannabis and continue to use occasionally because I prefer it to alcohol and other recreational "drugs." I still find it to be just as effective as when I first began.

What about the potential side effects of marijuana use? Aren’t there some dangers and unknowns there?

Herremans: The effects of use by healthy adults are well-known: intoxication, dry mouth, altered perception of time, etc. Nothing terribly scary, although people at risk from psychosis should definitely avoid it. Doctors tell me that we already know most of the effects, but nothing is ever 100 percent for sure until it's been well studied. Until cannabis is legalized, we won't be able to study it well enough.

Do you plan on trying to play in the league again? Do you worry about this stance impacting your chances?

Herremans: That is not really on my radar right now. I did not accomplish everything I wanted to as a player, but I am very proud of my career and the direction it has taken me in. If I were planning a comeback, I wouldn't think this stance should impact my chances as long as I passed the drug test. Other players worry that going up against the NFL policy could affect their careers, and I certainly understand why.

The NFL Players Association is preparing a proposal that would amend the sport’s drug policies to take a “less punitive” approach to dealing with recreational marijuana use by players. Is this the right tactic? What should the ultimate goal of the NFLPA be?

Herremans: Well, I don't know what the "less punitive" approach would exactly entail. I think the first thing to do is to stop punishing for it and to pardon all the people under suspension for it currently. It is too misunderstood of a drug to be punishing people for it. After that step is achieved, then the research can take place to see how to offer it properly as an alternative medicine in states where legal.

Besides speaking publicly about it, do you plan on taking further action to push for the acceptance of marijuana use in the NFL?

Herremans: I think that advocating and normalizing it is the best thing that I can do at the moment. I would love to meet with any owners, coaches or anyone for the NFLPA who are interested in hearing what I have to say, but until then, I'll just keep the conversation going. If anyone would like to talk more on the subject, you can find me on Twitter @toddherremans.