Eben Britton: The NFL Needs To Embrace Marijuana

When you’re talking to an NFL superstar (in this case, Eben Britton), it’s a different kind of superstar, at least in the US. Why? Quite simply, it’s because the U.S. has a very unique relationship with American Football.

The rules and tactical complexity also make the game almost impenetrable to anyone who doesn’t watch the sport, making it a particularly insider game that almost requires fans to be somewhat obsessive. It really is one of those things where you either “get it” or you don’t; and it seems that a lot of the U.S. does get it!

Eben Britton is one of many former-NFL stars who is open about his cannabis use. However, unlike many football players past and present, Eben was open about his use even as he was playing. It takes guts to do such a thing, especially when it could mean the end of your career. So how does a man play 60 NFL games, be an All-Pac-10 college football first-teamer and become a great offensive tackle in a game that’s notoriously closed-minded about swapping the painkillers for pot? Find out by reading on …

When and why did you start using cannabis? Please tell us how it helps you.

I started out of curiosity, as a teenager. I used it occasionally, not too often, until I got to the NFL. Really, once I got to the NFL, consuming cannabis became a regular thing. I used it, because intuitively, when all the pills were making me feel really horrible and putting me in a really bad, negative state of mind and exacerbating all the injuries that I was dealing with … You know, I could use cannabis, and it’d make me feel better!

It eased my physical pain, and it eased the psychological stress and the emotional stress of having to get out there and constantly produce at 100%. You know, even when your body’s breaking down. So I had a very … I felt a very holistic benefit from cannabis, not only as a pain reliever, but also as an emotional and spiritual uplifter. Helping me rejuvenate my mind and refresh me for the next day of work.

You know, in the NFL, it’s incredibly strenuous work hours. You have hours and hours of meetings, followed by an hour or two of weightlifting, another couple of hours of practise, which was full-speed banging and smashing into other individuals. And it’s not just some days. This isn’t a one-day-a-week job. It’s constant. Your body is always breaking down. The older you get, your joints and ligaments and knees, hips, back, shoulders … They all take a pounding. Not to mention the handful of concussions I’ve suffered throughout my career, from high school to the NFL.

You need something to deal with all of that. By the time you get to the end of the week, it’s very apparent that powerful prescription anti-inflammatories – like Cataflam (diclofenac) and Indocin (indometacin), and next-generation nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Celebrex (celocoxib) and Bio-X (Alda-1, short for the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase activator 1) – are prescribed to just every single guy in the locker room to take on a daily basis, just to deal with the daily grind of playing football. This isn’t the full-blown injuries, you know, this just the constant knicks and the bruises … The soft tissue damage the guys are dealing with year-round.

Depending on your physical state, some guys are taking opiates from training camp through to the end of the playoffs, and you’re looking at long-term use, or short-term use of opiates that turns into addiction. This is because these guys weren’t educated, and they’re stuck in this mindset where cannabis is demonized, at least to the point of testing for it once a year.

How do you get through the drug tests over the course of the year?

If you are a player that’s aware enough and you’re someone that chooses to consume cannabis over their athletic career, then you can sort of maneuver yourself through those annual screenings. The “street drug tests” is what they categorize marijuana under. If you basically know that test is coming up, at the beginning of any mandatory team activities, and with that in mind, you stop consumption 30 days prior to the test. Then you have all the way until training camp before you might be tested.

So, you know, you need to have some discipline, but once you’re tested, you’re free to consume cannabis at your leisure. They don’t test for it randomly, like they do with performance-enhancing drugs like steroids or human growth hormone, which they test for constantly throughout the year.

So, guys need to understand that the tide is turning, and the more education that’s put out there, the more it’s going to become accepted … You know, with professional football players, it’s not the stereotypical big, dumb jocks. They’re intelligent beings that have spent a lifetime caring for their bodies and getting their bodies to this place. And so, they’re very aware what’s going into them and what they’re doing to their bodies, and how they can do it better.

When and why did you join the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition (GCC), then?

Well, I joined Gridiron Cannabis Coalition about 2 years ago. It was started by a guy named Kyle Turley [offensive lineman who played for New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs], and he invited me into one of their first speaking panels at a cannabis conference in Phoenix, Arizona back in November 2015.

I had just recently retired. I had begun writing about my experiences in the NFL, dealing with injuries, drugs & drug policies, and just the day-to-day experience of a pro football player, in particular what a pro-offensive lineman’s, life looks like. And it also had a lot to do with the drugs I was taking during the times I was dealing with the debilitating injuries that I’d suffered during my football career, and that sort of grew organically into cannabis advocacy.

I got a call from Kyle, and he said, “Hey, I’m putting together this panel. If you’re interested, I’d love you to come and talk about your experiences with injuries and what you went through and cannabis and whatever you feel is important to you.” So I said, “Sure.” So I went out there and met him. By that point, I  sort of really developed a fundamental understanding of cannabis as medicine. I hadn’t truly known the extent of the science that backed it up, but I was always very much an advocate, at least on a personal level.

So, going out there and speaking, sharing my story and just seeing how many people this movement effects, from children with seizure disorders to military veterans to cancer survivors to traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivors … You know, it’s amazing! And it’s amazing not only from a medical aspect, but also a social and economic standpoint, and what the cannabis plant can do for us as a people.

I just became more and more passionate about it, started educating myself more and more on the science, and I feel like groups like Gridiron Cannabis are incredibly important, especially with the platform NFL and American Football provides in shining a light on what cannabis can do as a medicine. The use it has as an alternative to all the pharmaceutical drugs that are pumped into the NFL locker rooms.

There’s also the neuroprotectant part of cannabis, and how it can help be a “buffer” against the prevalence of concussions and helping to reduce the outcomes of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which we are finding in so many retired football players. Those tragic stories of retired football players … They’re endless …

My wife is part of a group on Facebook of over 2,000 wives of players that are sharing some of the most heartbreaking stories you’ve ever heard one after the other, from “My husband killed himself in front of the children,” to “My husband’s losing his mind and flipping into dementia, and doesn’t know what’s going on after we leave the house.” This is a direct result of the game. It’s a violent game, and the way you play in the NFL … You play hard, you play with your head, you use your body very violently …

There’s a lot of residual effects that come with that, and one of them is CTE, where basically years and years of concussions have created dead brain tissue, and so guys don’t even understand what’s happening to them. We’ve been just kind of, you know, ushered through our football career, not paying attention to any of this. We’re masking it with this macho, testosterone-driven, adrenalin-fuelled rigmarole that says, “Don’t pay attention to your pain. Concussions are just part of the deal, and we’ll pop pills to get through.”

It’s absurd. It’s not sustainable to keep approaching it in this way. With cannabis, which is something there’s so much science behind, to the point where the federal government has a patent on the chemical compound CBD as a neuroprotectant … The NFL has an incredible opportunity to become the innovators of brain science in sports and push something in a really positive direction. Be, I don’t know, a standard bearer. Set the standard on how these things go. American football provides us with an extreme case study of the physical trauma on the human body.

They [the NFL] has a great opportunity, as the most popular sport in America and one of the biggest sports in the world, to show what this plant can be as a medicine.

This is something we need to raise more awareness of …

I think so! I even talk to teammates – my contemporaries – you know, guys my age, who are all dealing with these things. Everything from daily fucking headaches to severe depression and anxiety. The physical pain is like, fuck man, we’ll take it all day. We’ll gladly walk off into retirement with a bum shoulders, elbows, shoulders, backs and knees and all that shit. But the brain deteriorating throughout the rest of your life … To the point where you can’t be a functioning husband, father, partner and member of society … It’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to accept that as a fact, a consequence, of the game.

To go back to that, guys my age … I talk to my good friend Eugene Monroe [offensive tackle for Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens]. We were drafted together to Jacksonville and we’ve been very close friends for many years, and we tell my brother of these stories and the stories my wife tells me, and he’s like, “You never hear this shit. You never hear how guys are really struggling.”

Everyone thinks it’s like a huge after party once you’ve retired. Everybody’s just chilling and enjoying life after they’ve finished with the game, but it’s just not true. There’s many, many people out there who are really going through an extreme amount of suffering. Families being torn apart, and just really unfortunate tragedies occurring. If we understood that that these things were happening and the awareness was there, maybe we could start to make some changes?

When do you think the NFL will start accepting cannabis? How realistic do you think that is?

They’re starting to talk about it. They’re starting to hear the cries. Well, I don’t know if you heard that Roger Goodell [Commissioner of the NFL] – which was a few months ago now – where he said in reference to marijuana, “I don’t know if anything you smoke is good for you,” or some bullshit like that.

The initial comment of making a statement where the only way of consuming cannabis is through smoking it is ignorant and uneducated enough. But to just continue to turn a blind eye to the science that could save his former players and the league billions of dollars in lawsuits … It’s totally ignorant and really, for me, shines a light on him and the league. It’s saying, “We don’t give a fuck about player health, safety and wellbeing.”

That being said, they’re not going to be able to resist. You can’t run from these things for too long, because people aren’t going to allow their kids to play football. You’re having children play Pop Warner Football, where their necks aren’t even strong enough to support the weight of their helmet, and they’ve had so many concussions through their Pop Warner and middle school years that by the time they get to high school, they can’t even play anymore. These kids are fuelled by parents, probably fathers in most cases, with dreams of NFL glory that they weren’t able to accomplish. It’s absurd.

I don’t have a son, I have a daughter. She won’t be playing football. If I do have a son, he definitely wouldn’t be allowed to play football either, at least until he reaches high school.  I’m not going to sit here and say “I’ll never allow my son to play,” but it would be something he would have to fully understand what it is before stepping out there. And it definitely wouldn’t be until he was at least 14 years-old.

So what has the reaction been like to the GCC? How does the NFL feel about it?

Hopefully, it’s a professional feeling of , “Oh, this is a group of people that are trying to make our organization work better.” I’m not exactly sure what their feelings towards us are. I know they’re very dismissive of cannabis as medicine, especially Roger Goodell.

That being said, Jerry Jones [owner of the Dallas Cowboys], who probably owns a quarter of the wealth of the entire NFL, has come out and said that we should remove marijuana from the banned substances list. This is a huge victory for the movement – to have an owner like Jerry Jones  – to say such a thing. The Dallas Cowboys are probably worth the most money of any sports franchise almost in the world, at around $4 billion. That’s a good sign, because he moves a lot of weight in the NFL, and he’s the kind of guy who changes people’s minds on things like that.

I think there’s a lot of positive movement. I think it’s very slow. We have Jeff Sessions and a federal government that refuses to budge on the Schedule I classification, and the NFL is sort of an old, blue-collared group that is gonna just stick with that and not move until that moves. Unless there’s a massive hit to the NFL financially, I don’t see them making any fast movement on the cannabis front, unless the government starts doing it first.

Image credit: http://altoday.com

Well, there will be a massive financial hit if parents are stopping their kids from playing football …

Exactly. I agree with you. It’s all intertwined. If the NFL had the foresight to see that, I think that would be really beneficial for the NFL.

We’ve gleamed that there is a drug addiction problem in American Football throughout the professional level. Does this start before the professional level?

My good friend and former pro-football colleagues, Nate Jackson [tight end for San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns and Las Vegas Locomotives] and I- who was also at CannMed – have started a podcast together called the Pain Project. We basically talk about everything from our experiences in football, to the life after, the healing process and cannabis. We bring on guests and have them share their stories of whatever they’ve been through. It’s really interesting, and something we talked about on our last podcast is when we started to be introduced to these pills and painkillers.

Both of us, throughout high school and college, were never really on pills. There wasn’t much access to pills and there wasn’t much of a mindset for using pills. I remember in high school using maybe an advil or two in 4 years. I never took anything like that; and yet, I was still in significant amounts of pain. I was able to deal with that.

It wasn’t until the NFL and talking to veteran players who had been in the system 6-, 7-, 8-, 10- years plus, who sort of hinted at the idea that “We take stuff to get through the day. We take pain-relieving drugs to get through the day.” That was proliferated by the trainers. When you went into the training room with some soft tissue damage, like a muscle tear or just a bad joint, the rehab regiment always began with a prescription of Cataflam or Indocin. These are highly powerful, pharmaceutical-grade anti-inflammatories that you start taking on a daily basis.

You’d take one or two in the morning, and another one at lunch. That was just to get through the day. When you had something more significant or if conditions worsened over the course of a season, you were given painkillers. Painkillers are a difficult thing for anyone to use properly, for anyone. You get a bottle of 20-60 pills, sometimes 90 pills, following a surgery, with not a whole lot of direction or understanding of what you’re taking.

Before you know it – and it doesn’t take much – you’re gonna be experiencing withdrawal symptoms. You’re gonna be waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning like I was following my first shoulder surgery feeling like you have a hole in your stomach, cold sweats, chills and extreme discomfort, and the only thing my mind is calling for is another pill or a dose of vicodin. That wasn’t even abusing them. That wasn’t even taking 5 pills at a time. I was taking prescribed amounts, and within a very short period of time, feeling severe withdrawal symptoms, to the point where you can’t sleep. And you’re not healing if you’re not sleeping.

So, I would say the problem of drug addiction is vast in the professional Football league, just as much as it is in the rest of American society.

The opioid epidemic is growing, and it’s not getting better. The places where it is getting better are the places where cannabis is getting legalized. I think that speaks for itself.

As a final note on drug addiction and American Football … I guess at college, it’s just at a much smaller scale. There’s fewer of those instances. In my experience, there was much less pharmaceutical drugs happening in college, and I definitely wasn’t exposed to it at that time. But, that doesn’t change the fact that American Football’s a very violent game. There’s a lot of injuries, tissue damage, trauma, physical, emotional and psychological throughout the season, so human beings are going to gravitate towards something to ease that pain. The things that are accepted within an NFL training room are these really toxic NSAIDs and painkillers that wreak havoc on the kidneys, liver, digestive system and so on.

You mentioned that you started smoking pot in high school? When did the lightbulb moment hit you? The moment you realized you could replace vicodin with marijuana?

The first time I tried it, I was 15. It wasn’t until I was in the NFL and I had first-hand experience of being severely injured and taking opiates and just feeling hideous. Everything from a weakened physical state and unable to recover, to my mental state, which took such a dive that I was on a hair trigger with anxiety, anger and rage at all times, exacerbating the isolation of being injured and unable to compete, perform or even dress myself thanks to my back and shoulder injuries.

Taking opiates on top of all this put me into a tailspin of rage, self-victimization, isolation, depression, anxiety, panic … They keep you in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for those “flight-or-fight” reactions. Keeping you on-edge at all times is not a great way to heal. Whereas I found cannabis put me into the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxed me and helped me heal. Allowed me to be able to just lie down and sleep. So, my experiences in the NFL is what changed my mind.

I was very much affected by the stigma of cannabis for a long time. I was always very wary and nervous of anyone finding out I smoked weed or used cannabis at all. It was a horror – a nightmare – for a coach to find that out. I was always a team captain and a leader of every team I’ve ever been on. I was somebody everyone looked up to, someone who coaches came to when communicating messages to the rest of the team. So I was very wary of that stigma. If you’re somebody who uses cannabis or smokes weed, you’re not thought of as someone who’s a “high functioning user” or something like that. To me, those things could not coexist in the same individual.

So it took me a long time to get comfortable with my own cannabis use and understanding, “Oh, this actually puts me in a better place than these other, synthetic pills compounds that make me feel weird and shaky.” With pills, I’d be waking up during the night needing more pills; with cannabis, I sleep through the night, I feel better, I’m calm, not angry, peaceful and balanced … I was just in a much better state of being, and I really started to pay attention to that.

It was really my own intuition that lead me there, you know. It wasn’t a conscious thing, at first.

We’re looking at your website, Athletes for Care, and we’d love to know more information on what sort of activities you’re doing to provide this resource for athletes.

It’s really been about, in the beginning stages at least, about raising awareness and making this link between cannabis and a healthy lifestyle. I think that’s really the most transcendent message in the cannabis movement. Cannabis is just a piece of a healthy, holistic lifestyle, and so bringing all these guys together like Bas Rutten [legendary mixed martial artist, kickboxer, karateka, catch wrestler and former heavyweight UFC champion] and Frank Shamrock [legendary submission wrestler, kickboxer and former middleweight UFC light heavyweight champion], who are UFC legends and hall-of-famers and very well-known names. Then you have pro-Football players, the NHL guys and extreme athletes like olympic skiers and snowboarders (e.g. Greta Gaines, former professional snowboarder and now country music artist) …

I think being able to bring these highly productive, highly successful athletes together who are willing to voice this message and to stand up and acknowledge that cannabis is a part of the healing process for many athletes. This is especially for the life after your competitive career ends, and having to deal with the depression and having to totally reidentify yourself as a human being after your sporting career finishes. Cannabis is very therapeutic.

We’ve been coaxed into believing this propaganda and all this misinformation … And so, I think really for Athletes for Care, at this point, it’s just going to expand from here. Really, I think it’s one of the beginnings of the beacon for that message – that marijuana can be a fundamental part of a healthy lifestyle – and being able to spread that through our platform. Get it out there to the mainstream, and to normalize it and humanize it. It’s too important to too many people, and there’s too much amazing science coming out about it. There’s too much pain and suffering in this world, and people need this plant.

Our vision for Athletes for Care originally was a resource for athletes to come to where they could find an identity after sports. Cannabis is just one facet of that. We also want to offer entrepreneurial programs, research advocacy and so on. As pro-athletes, we feel obligated to stand up and be a voice in this movement.

Do you have any particular favorite strains or cannabis-derived products?

I do. Probably my favorite strain is Jack Herer. I think that’s a great strain for football players, as it’s good for the brain as well as having lots of pain-relieving qualities. That balance is a good one for football players. I think cannabis in general is the perfect medicine for Football players, because of how it treats the body and because of the neuroprotective qualities. It helps the body heal from the inside-out.

Products – I started a CBD company, named Be Trū Organics. We do a pain relief cream, an oral spray and a gummy. I’m a huge fan of topicals. Our CBD topicals are fantastic. I’m a huge fan of the Vapexhale unit, which is an extract and concentrates machine that vaporizes super clean. You know, I work out almost everyday – I’m very active. I need the best available!

Cannabis is a huge part of my rehab and healing process, and will always be, because I’m probably somewhere on the spectrum of CTE, as well as having a family history of depression and anxiety on top of that.

I’m always interested in high-quality, clean, organically-grown, well-processed products. I’m a big fan of concentrates now, flowers always my number 1. I think it’s an amazing time to be alive and it’s a great time to be involved in the cannabis industry, so it’s very exciting to see what people come up with and all the new and amazing things that are being put out there. It’s a fascinating industry and an exciting thing to be a part of.

Playing without the cannabis means you’re playing with an unprotected brain.

So you feel there’s a definite medical advantage to playing Football under the influence of cannabis?

Oh, definitely! I think the federal government can prove it with their patent on cannabinoids as a neuroprotectant. Our brain is just floating around in this viscous fluid in our skull. So, when you’re in a high-impact sport like American Football, smashing head-first into another individual, and the brain gets jarred in there. There’s nothing in that skull holding everything in place except a bowl of water.

Consuming cannabis actually creates a foamy protective layer inside that brain, cradling the brain inside the skull. [Damaged brain cells release glutamate, which is neurotoxic and can lead to traumatic brain injury (TBI).] So I would say, playing football under the influence of cannabis is playing with a protected brain. Playing without the influence of cannabis means you’re not, and I think that’s a very important distinction to start making.

I believe guys like myself and Nate Jackson, who were comfortable enough to consume cannabis through our careers, however often that might have been. Doing it even once a week is better than not doing it at all. I think that the guys who chose to use cannabis throughout their Football careers even when on-season, are coming out of them in better shape than the guys who were fearful and chose not to use it. I think if someone compiles the data on that, you’d see that, without a doubt.

Well, that was a nice, long, informative interview! We hope you enjoyed it!


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