Buffalo Bills third-year offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson has just been hit with his second suspension of the season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. What makes this case different is the fact that Henderson’s substance abuse offense is for treating his Crohn’s disease with medical marijuana.
Henderson’s case is a testament to the ongoing societal battle over the legalization of medical marijuana. There is no ambiguity regarding Henderson’s necessity to use medical marijuana to treat pain from his Crohn’s disease. In the past year alone, Henderson’s illness has caused him to undergo two related surgeries.
According to a report in The Washington Post:
What makes Henderson’s situation unique is that he uses marijuana, which is legal in many states but prohibited under the collective bargaining agreement in the NFL, to combat the pain from Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel. In January, 2 1/2 feet of his colon were removed and in April he underwent surgery to reattach his intestines. In the interim, he wore an ileostomy bag and lost 50 pounds. He chose not to appeal the four-game suspension he received in September, his first of the season.
But Henderson is expected to appeal what would be a 10-game suspension for this second offense for using a banned substance. The NFL is expected to decide his punishment this week and NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reports that Henderson may take the matter to court.
This case raises serious questions about changing societal attitudes about marijuana as medicine, but also regarding the patient’s right to a choice of pain management treatment – without being beholden to dangerous opiates and pharmaceuticals.
“Merciful or not, there is no medical exception that the NFL will accept. It doesn’t matter that Seantrel is battling Crohn’s disease, and has had his intestines outside his body,” Henderson’s agent, Brian Fettner, told ESPN’s Adam Schefter after the initial suspension. “It doesn’t matter how you take it, if you digest the cannabis, that’s it. And they don’t care.”
Fettner also explained the reasoning behind why Henderson didn’t appeal after the initial suspension, saying, “So you can appeal and lose, and push it back, or you can get it over with. Per the negotiated letter of law, it seems like a futile appeal. We don’t want to waste anyone’s time. We want Seantrel back as soon as possible.”
Due to the rapidly evolving body of evidence supporting the veracity of marijuana as medicine, many players are beginning to lobby the NFL Players Association, as well as the NFL directly, to push the league to renegotiate the substance abuse rules pertaining to cannabis. The main thrust of the players argument is that marijuana is a much safer pain management alternative than the current regimen of pharmaceuticals.
Henderson missed almost a third of the NFL season in 2015 due to complications from his Crohn’s, which ultimately resulted in surgeries.
According to an unnamed source that spoke with NFL.com, “He needs cannabis. You can’t take painkillers with the way his intestines are.”
In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, Henderson noted some side effects he suffered while using a pharmaceutical based pain management strategy, saying, “I was weak. At first I couldn’t stand up on my own. I felt so weak. It was terrible. I didn’t like it at all. I kept walking and walking around the hospital.”
Currently, there are 28 states and D.C. that have legalized medical marijuana, and 8 states, along with D.C., that have legalized recreational use of cannabis.
The NFL Players Association has stated that they are studying marijuana’s potential as a pain management strategy for players, but cautions that players are still bound by the current collective bargaining agreement.
“Marijuana is still governed by our collective bargaining agreement,” George Atallah, the NFLPA’s assistant executive director of external affairs, said earlier this month. “And while some states have moved in a more progressive direction, that fact still remains.”
“We are actively looking at the issue of pain management of our players. And studying marijuana as a substance under that context is the direction we are focused on,” said Atallah.
One of the former NFL players leading the charge to recognize marijuana as medicine is former Baltimore Ravens Offensive Lineman Eugene Monroe, who succinctly explained to The Washington Post exactly why cannabis makes more sense than traditional pharmaceuticals treatments.
Whereas opioids can lead to addiction, organ damage and overdose, cannabis is not addictive and doesn’t cause death. Cannabis can treat chronic pain as effectively as opioids, and in cases in which opioids are necessary, such as after surgery, using cannabis reduces the necessary dosage, thereby reducing the risk of addiction.
He learned the differences among at least 113 cannabinoids marijuana contains. THC is the psychoactive compound, the reason recreational users seek it. But cannabidiol, or CBD, provides analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. CBD can be extracted into oil and administered in pill form that doesn’t render a high. Monroe came to believe the majority of what he had been taught about marijuana was a lie, the harm it caused overblown and the potential benefits ignored.
While there may be no immediate relief in sight for Henderson, hopefully, these actions can be the spark of what ignites a more vocal public outcry for the NFL to have compassion for their players and their health.
When over half states that make up the United States have legalized cannabis as medicine, perhaps it’s time for the NFL… and for that matter, the U.S. federal government to wake up and heed the will of the people – and recognize that marijuana is medicine that saves countless lives each year by offering an alternative to the rampant scourge of opiate addiction and death.
Please share this article to help start this much needed national conversation — as it’s bigger than the NFL. It’s high time America stops forcing people to suffer because a few archaic and obstinate suits in DC think this nearly miraculous plant is evil.