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Professional athletes cop to pot

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Who is your pick for the most courageous Detroit Lion?

This week, running back Mike James gets my vote. On Sunday, James will join a panel of professional athletes in Ann Arbor discussing their use of medical marijuana as part of the annual Hash Bash activities.

What makes James courageous is that he is an active professional athlete going public about his medical marijuana use. He's not the first professional athlete to come out for cannabis, but he is among a select few.

One of those few is fellow panelist Eugene Monroe. Although now retired, the former tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens publicly supported medical marijuana while still in the ranks.

Former Red Wing Darren McCarty waited until he was retired to talk about the stuff. Not that I doubt McCarty's courage — it still takes cojones to go public with your marijuana use and McCarty did it a few years back. On top of that, he's shown the backbone to admit that he's used marijuana to help him overcome his alcoholism. It takes a lot of courage to come out publicly about your own drug dependency.

These athletes will all talk about their use of marijuana in a panel starting at 2 p.m. on Sunday in the Michigan League's Koessler Room. A second panel of medical professionals with Sue Sisley, Evan Litinas, and Gus Rosania will immediately follow them in the same location.

"It's become a point for me" to discuss medical marijuana, says James. "I know better. At this point for me not to say anything would be a disservice to my teammates. NFL players are four times more likely to become dependent on opiates than the general population."

"If not now, when?" he says. "It has to be done sooner than later."

In James' case, it indeed seems like the right time. According to the NFL Players Association, the average NFL career lasts about three years. That gives credence to the quip that NFL really means Not For Long. The NFL begs to differ, claiming that the average career for players who make a club's opening day roster in their rookie season is six years. That doesn't include players who are on scout teams or manage to make a roster later by keeping at it.

We hear about and revere the Pro Bowl players and first round draft picks whose careers last around a decade, according to statistica.com. But the average career for a running back, James' position, is 2.57 years.

Regardless of outliers such as Brett Favre, who played pro ball into his 40s, the average pro football career is short and brutal. By any account, James is closer to the end than the beginning. And he knows it. He knows the aches and pains that come with age from injuries sustained in his youth are waiting for him. Football players are finally beginning to speak up publicly about the carnage inherent in their sport.

"This is something retired players have been pushing for a while," James says. "Active players don't talk about it. We need to make this game safe by changing policies and giving players a more reliable message on how to manage chronic pain. I have a life after football."

Football takes a toll not just on the bones and joints of its players. It also hurts the brain. The results of a study released in 2017 found that 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). That's permanent brain damage caused by repeated blunt force injuries to the head. CTE leads to memory loss and dementia among other mental ailments. Player Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted of murder and ultimately ended his own life, was found to have brain injuries consistent with stage 3 or 4 CTE.

Cannabis might be an aid there, too. Some studies have shown marijuana to help limit brain injury. And the U.S. government's patent application titled "Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants" asserts, "It has surprisingly been found that cannabidiol [CBD] and other cannabinoids can function as neuroprotectants."

James and other football players are concerned about all of this. He has a cousin in college who is hoping to enter the NFL ranks soon, and a young son who wants to be like daddy.

"There's more than one reason that I'm compelled to speak out," James says. "For me it's just my truth, whether people love it or hate it. It's about change. If we don't change, football will be gone. My little cousin, my son wants to play football. ... I want to make sure they have options and a responsible community of medical practices and culture. This is not just about medical marijuana, it's about an irresponsible culture."

Opioids have been the go-to pain drugs for football players. Their abuse is the thing of legend and legal charges. A 2017 filing of more than 1,800 former players against the league regarding negligent use of narcotics says, "Players are not informed of the long-term health effects of taking controlled substances and prescription medications in the amounts given to them."

As James says, he's been around a while and understands what's going on. He's experienced the opiates and their side effects.

"[Opioid use] can take over your life to a point that you can't function, can't do the things you set out to do," he says. "It can cause unbearable [nausea], you can't use the bathroom sometimes. The sedation — sometimes the opiates made me so lethargic I couldn't do anything. My son would be so upset. I couldn't eat properly and sleep properly."

All this doesn't mean that James is puffing away in the locker room. The NFL has policies regarding marijuana use. It tests players for it. It's not a zero tolerance thing, but high levels of cannabinoids can get you in trouble. So James has to be careful about when and how he uses an amalgam of topicals and tinctures, in addition to vaping.

High-profile athletes and highly trained medical professionals are not the usual folks one thinks of when considering changes to marijuana policy. However, their courage is part of the changing landscape and the changing culture regarding one of the oldest medicines in human history.

The panel discusssion featuring athletes and medical professional on cannabis runs 2 p.m. to 4:19 p.m. at the Michigan League's Koessler Room, third floor, 911 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-764-0446; events.umich.edu/event/50863.

Dispensary shutdowns: Setting up a legal and orderly system for distributing medical marijuana has not been without its heartaches, disappointments, and outright bullshit. Last week the state sent out cease-and-desist letters to a whopping 161 dispensary addresses in Detroit, in addition to others across the state. Many of these are places that were blocked from applying for Detroit licenses to operate, and therefore could not even apply for state licenses.

I have nothing more to add to that, other than we'll see where this goes in the long run. In the meantime, it seems that a lot of people who sank their money into a location in hopes of having a business have been screwed.

I was wrong: This year's Hash Bash is longer than usual length. It will run from noon to 4:19 p.m. with two hours of speakers and two hours of music ending just in time for that 4:20 p.m. break. More information is available at hashbash.com.

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