Cannabis in the NFL: Is Marijuana the Key to Athletic Success?

Getty Images

If you haven’t heard, this weekend was big for football. Not only did it mark the first football season since the pandemic, but also the first season since the National Football League amended its labor agreement to cease the suspension of players who test positive for marijuana.

For a historically conservative league, the decision (made this spring) was a surprise, but one that made a lot of sense. Former players Nate Newton, Shaun Smith, and Mark Stenoski of the Dallas Cowboys, along Martavis Bryant of the Pittsburgh Stealers, Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns, and many others associated with the league admit to using cannabis before and after games, and former Denver Broncos star Nate Jackson has taken an outspoken stance against the NFL’s dismissal of the drug, writing an op-ed on the subject in the New York Times and working with the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition. In a 2018 interview with the Bleacher Report podcast, “The Lefkoe Show,” former tight end Martellus Bennett estimated as many as 89 percent of current NFL players use cannabis to decrease pre-game anxiety, ease the effects of concussion, and alleviate pain as an alternative to opioids.

“There are times of the year where your body just hurts so bad,” Bennett told Bleacher Report. “You don’t want to be popping pills all the time. There are anti-inflammatory drugs you take so long that they start to eat at your liver, kidneys and things like that. A human made that. God made weed.”

RELATED: Ex-NFL Star Calvin Johnson Frequently Used Marijuana to Ease Pain

And it’s not just NFL athletes who have gone green. In 2014, snowboarding company executive Jim Alpine founded the 420 Games, an annual series of athletic events for those who use cannabis to reach their fitness goals, and at San Francisco’s Power Plant Fitness, gym trainers are working cannabis into their recommended fitness regimens. In his early career as a bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger had a habit of smoking before pumping iron, a part of his past that likely influenced his progressive marijuana policy as Governor of California.

The benefits of weed on athletic performance are little researched, but would make a lot of sense to anyone who’s tried cannabis before. Dr. Leigh Vinocur, Board-Certified Emergency Room Physician and Member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians, says there are several well-known effects of cannabis that some believe benefit a workout: 1) inflammation reduction, 2) anxiety reduction, and 3) protection of the brain (though, until further research is conducted on the subject, she does not recommend exercising or participating in sports high.)

“Besides helping you overcome anxiety before working out and blunting pain while you’re in the workout, we’ve seen evidence that cannabis and CBD are neuroprotective, meaning it can help protect brain cells, which could be beneficial to people in sports where concussions are a risk,” Vinocur told GreenState. “As far as after physical activity, if you’re having to take opioids for pain, some people have found it to be a good alternative.”

RELATED: The Science Behind Cannabis Therapies for Pain, Inflammation

So if marijuana can increase pain tolerance, protect the brain, and make you say goodbye to pre-workout jitters, could weed be the key to athletic success?

According to Heather Despres, Director of Patient Focused Certification at medical marijuana advocacy organization Americans for Safe Access, it depends on the strain, as well as how cannabis affects you.

“People generally enjoy working out more if they are high because they feel more focused and motivated,” Despres told GreenState. “But some people feel like they can’t focus and are less motivated. This has to do with the cultivar (strain) being sativa or indica. Myrcene, one of the most common terpenes in the cannabis species, is often responsible for cultivars being identified as indica. If someone is looking for an energizing cultivar, they may want to look at varieties that contain limonene. The combination of terpenes and cannabinoids will determine how the cultivar may affect someone, and (the effect) can be different from person to person.”

RELATED: Which Strain is Better for Productivity: Indica or Sativa?

Despres said she smokes a joint before hiking, and takes an edible on her way out the door to enjoy the continued lack of pain on the trail. She calls it “the ultimate runner’s high.”

Vinocur, however, is more skeptical of cannabis being used as a pre-workout boost.

“As an emergency room physician, I’m concerned about anything that blunts your pain response while exercising,” Vinocur said. “Pain is a signal to the body that you’re doing too much, so there’s risk of injury there. I’ve also seen my fair share of runners needing stitches because they tripped over themselves while running high, or bicyclers who tried biked into traffic stoned. It impairs your coordination, and for any kind of athletic activity, you need your sharpest, most acute faculties. I don’t recommend it for the same reason I wouldn’t recommend driving high.”

As an alternative to smoking before a workout, Vinocur recommends using CBD, which contains the anxiety reducing, pain-relieving, and neuroprotective effects of cannabis, minus the high (usually.) It’s also the go-to pain reliever for NFL star Brett Favre.

“Some people feel foggy on CBD, but it’s not as intoxicating as cannabis,” Vinocur said. “If you’re the type of person who uses CBD regularly and has seen it has no effect on you’re driving, it’s anti-inflammatory effects make it a great option for long-term pain management, without masking the pain that is serving as an important signal to your body during a workout or making you lose coordination.”

RELATED: CBD: An Alternative to Opioids?

But while Vinocur doubts the safety of cannabis use before exercising, she conceded that there is great potential for its use after.

“It’s certainly a double-edged sword,” Vinocur said. “When we’re talking about the recovering process for athletes after a physical injury or a concussion, I can see it as a potential alternative to opioids, particularly for football players. Cannabis even has the potential to replace opioids or at least help to treat cancer pain – really, pain of all kinds. We just need more clinical trials done to see how much it can really do.”

Though a controversial subject, the need for more research on the potential of cannabis therapy for athletes is one thing most agree on.

“There’s conflicting scientific evidence with respect to how THC affects the body,” Despres said. “(But), I believe people should be free to choose the medical treatments that make the most sense for them. Study after study has shown negative effects of opioid usage, so if people can have a similar level of pain relief while not consuming those drugs, I support that and personally believe they should not be prohibited from the NFL or any major sports leagues.”

Elissa Esher is Assistant Editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to

Elissa Esher