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Researchers and industry professionals debate marijuana use in the NFL

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Many NFL fans across the nation can reel off facts about chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma — as easily as they comment on Russell Wilson's botched pass at the end of Super Bowl XLIX.

Another debate rests on the sidelines, as researchers and former players plead to legalize marijuana use in the league, particularity to treat concussions. Last year, Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon published an open letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that encouraged the league to actively support cannabis research to treat long-term head trauma.

Grinspoon wrote that the NFL should be "directly funding research to determine if cannabis — including preparations with no psychoactive effects, such as those with a high-cannabidiol (CBD) to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) ratio — can indeed provide significant protection against the damage of repetitive concussions."

That same year, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll publicly said he'd like to see the NFL study whether marijuana can help players. Despite efforts, marijuana use is prohibited in the NFL. The league went so far as to release memos to players in Washington and Colorado after state legalization referendums were passed to "remind the players that it's illegal and prohibited."

Players are subject to one drug test per year in a period from April 20-Aug. 9. If they pass, another test won't be performed until the following year. If they fail, they must enter an intervention program which can test players up to 10 times per month, with an escalating level of consequences for each failed test.

The NFL updated its marijuana policy in 2014, and in doing so slightly relaxed testing standards. The policy increased the permitted threshold from 15 nanograms of carboxy THC per milliliter of urine to 35 nanograms. By comparison, Major League Baseball uses a threshold of 50 nanograms and the World Anti-Doping Agency, which does Olympic testing, uses a threshold of 150 nanograms.

Even without backing or funding from the NFL, cannabis research is underway. KannaLife Sciences, a bio-pharmaceutical and phyto-medical company, received licensing from the National Institutes of Health to develop a drug to treat concussions using medical marijuana derivatives.

The company is attempting to find specific compounds in marijuana that can treat chronic traumatic encephalopathy and prove that CBD can actually protect brain cells. ♦

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