In the fall of 2013, after Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie running back Mike James fractured his left ankle during a Monday Night Football game against the Miami Dolphins, he was prescribed opioid painkillers.
But James, a University of Miami graduate who now lives in Coral Gables, FL, quickly developed a dependency on the drugs that were supposed to help him. To get off opioids, his wife, Aubrey, recommended medical marijuana as an alternative to ease his pain. James immediately saw therapeutic benefits which helped his general well-being.
“Medical marijuana was a much better option and it was beneficial in helping me with my pain,” recalls James. “Opioids was taking a turn for the worse. With cannabis, I could do more things and I didn’t have the same sedation and negative feelings as I had with opioids.”
Since cannabis helped his pain subside, James wanted to continue taking it. However, the NFL still considers marijuana a banned substance.
In August of last year, James was required to take a drug test as part of the NFL’s routine testing program. The test came back positive for marijuana and led him to file a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for cannabis. The NFL denied his request. Repeated positive tests can lead to suspensions or expulsions from the league. But James was never banned from the league.
However, following a concussion in 2017, while playing for the Detroit Lions, James has since retired from the NFL.
“Many doctors formed an opinion that I cannot play anymore,” says James. “Unfortunately for me, my playing days are over and I am fine with that. I trust my doctors.”
But James has a new mission. Today, he has become is a vocal proponent of cannabis as an alternative to more addictive drugs, such as opioid painkillers, often used by athletes to play through the pain.
“I would like to forge a path for other young athletes who are coming behind me who may need an alternative to addictive pain medication,” he says. “I want to do all I can to help.”
As a former NFL player, James feels he has an advantage in getting people to sit down and listen to his story.
“Using my platform as a former player, I have never run into any barriers of speaking out,” says James. “I have always been able to get on the phone with someone or speak with them in person on why I feel cannabis should not be a banned substance. I’m hoping to extend this platform to help others who may not have the same platform as I do.”
The NFL and the NBA are the only two leagues who can suspend players for taking any form of marijuana. Major League Baseball can fine players for multiple marijuana infractions. In the National Hockey League, players are referred to a behavioral health program doctor.
“MLB and the NHL does not punish players for medical marijuana use,” says James. “We’re hopeful that someday the NFL and the NBA can follow their lead.”
James believes that lack of education and knowledge has plagued the NFL on its medical marijuana stance.
“They are used to doing things a certain way and change can be difficult for any organization,” he says.
There is some hope. In 2016, the NFL Players Association formed a committee to investigate pain management alternatives, including cannabis.
For the fans who have reached out and want to support medical marijuana use for treating pain, James encourages them to contact the NFL and put pressure on them.
“Reach out to them. Bang on their doors. Send your letters and emails and let them know that there is research supporting medical marijuana use out there,” he says.
And if you’re someone who wants to take cannabis for pain, James strongly recommends educating yourself first before jumping right into it. “Try to consult with someone who is in the industry or uses the plant and knows enough to guide you in a correct direction.”