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NFL invests in research to study cannabis for pain management

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. — A growing number of professional athletes are turning to cannabis for pain relief. An alternative to addictive opioids which athletes say helps to reduce pain from post-game injuries and to help speed recovery.

While athletes have shared their stories publicly, little scientific research has been conducted to support the anecdotal reports.

“The NFL, it's hard for them to throw support to something that has absolutely no evidence. So they’ve taken the leap to provide the funding to look for some evidence," said Mark Wallace, MD, chief of the division of Pain Medicine at UC San Diego.

The university received a $500,000 grant from the National Football League (NFL) to investigate the effects of cannabis on pain management.

“Probably close to 70 percent of the NFL players are exposed to opioids through the course of their career. And many of them remain on opioids after they're finished with their career," said Wallace. “I've taken hundreds and hundreds of patients off of opioids with cannabis.”

Wallace has been studying cannabis and its use for chronic pain for over two decades. In 2000, UC San Diego established its Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR). With support from the California State Legislature, researchers initiated the first therapeutic studies using smoked cannabis in over 20 years.

"We've learned how to dose it, we've come a long way," said Wallace. "Because if you don't dose it right, you can actually make the patients worse, you can worsen their pain. But if you dose it right, you could improve sleep, improve mood, reduce pain."

Relaxing its rules on cannabis use, the NFL no longer suspends players who test positive for marijuana. However, players will not be permitted to participate in the study. Instead, researchers will be working with professional rugby teams.

“A lot of the rugby players are more than willing to participate," said Wallace. "They’re looking for an answer too."

Injured athletes in the randomized, double-blind trial will dose up to four times a day for 48 hours, using a handheld vaporizer.

“The NFL, they know that the players are using it, and they have eased up on their restrictions. But at the same time, they understand it is a Schedule 2 drug that has varying state laws," said Wallace. “We’re hoping this will lead to larger studies within the NFL.”