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Voters in seven more states said “yes” to marijuana this month. Pot now is legal for recreational or medicinal use in more than half the country.

It’s still against federal law and classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning U.S. officials consider cannabis to have a high risk of abuse or harm, and no accepted medical use in treatment. Also, it’s still banned in professional sports.

Many athletes hope that will change as momentum grows nationwide for legalization. That’s especially true in the National Football League, where pain is a constant companion. Advocates say marijuana could offer a safer and better way to manage the pain.

Powerful Painkillers

Football hurts. As a fan watching from home, that’s not always obvious — players collide, fall down, pop back up. They rarely wince or show weakness. That’s just not how it’s done in football.

Kyle Turley hurt plenty during his eight NFL seasons in the 1990s and 2000s. As an offensive lineman, he was involved in jarring collisions nearly every play when his team had the ball. He hurt after his career -– Turley sometimes walks with a cane. And in a recent video, he displayed one by one the bottles of powerful painkillers he used.

“Vicodin, Flexeril, Percocets, Vioxx, morphine,” Turley recited as he plopped the bottles down on a kitchen counter.

Turley says be became addicted to the drugs and depressed to the point of contemplating suicide.

Then last year, he quit the prescription painkillers and started using marijuana to manage his pain.

“Just this right here,” he says in the video, holding up a small cannabis bud. “That’s all you need. That’s about two hits.”

Maybe Help From The Union

The video is from a website for the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition. Turley helped start the group as a way to promote marijuana as a legal option for pain management in football. The effort may be gaining traction as the country’s acceptance of pot grows.

In the next couple of weeks, the NFL Player’s Association will announce it has formed a new committee to examine pain issues for players.

“Certainly given some of the medical research that out there,” says union executive George Atallah, “marijuana is going to be one of the substances that we take a look at.”

Safer And Better?

As it should be, says pain specialist Dr. Daniel Clauw. He’s a University of Michigan professor of anesthesiology who has studied cannabis and pain management for the past five years.

He says comparing the safety of pot and opioid painkillers — the kind Turley and so many other NFL players and retirees use — is no contest.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014 more than 14,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids.

“You can’t directly die from taking a cannabinioid, the way tens of thousands of people are directly dying from opioids each year in the U.S,” says Dr. Clauw.

Dr. Clauw published a study this year of about 250 people who said they’d used pot and opioids for chronic pain. The subjects said as marijuana use went up, opioid use went down. Significantly.

“They noted on average a two-thirds decrease in their opioid dose,” says Dr. Clauw, adding, “they also noted that they just felt a lot better overall with respect to side-effect profile when their pain was being controlled largely with cannabinoids.”

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