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The NFL's Anti-Weed Policy Even Extends to Drugs That Could Prevent Brain Damage

A company is working with the federal government to develop a drug derived from cannabis that may prevent certain neurological disorders, but the NFL has been reluctant to lend its support.

by Payton Guion
Nov 12 2014, 9:05pm

Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

The case of Josh Gordon, a star wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns, is proof that the NFL comes down hard on players who use marijuana. Gordon — who had failed three previous drug tests — was handed a season-long suspension prior to the 2014 season after he was busted for smoking pot, which the league considers a banned substance. The ban was later reduced to 10 games after the league reworked its drug policy.

Until now, the league's strict anti-weed policy has only had an impact on which athletes are allowed to compete. Now, however, the hard-line stance may have serious consequences for the long-term health of players who suffer repeated concussions.

For the past few years, the NFL has grappled with how to handle chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative neurological condition caused by concussions. In July, the NFL settled a lawsuit over concussion-related brain injuries brought by more than 4,500 former players, agreeing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate victims, pay for medical exams, and underwrite research on diseases such as CTE.

KannaLife, a New York-based company, is now working with the federal government to develop a drug that may prevent certain neurological disorders, including CTE. But the drug is derived from marijuana, which has made the NFL reluctant to lend its support.

CTE grabbed headlines after a string former NFL players who had it committed suicide, most notably Junior Seau, the former All-Pro linebacker for the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots who took his own life in 2012. NFL players — and all athletes who play contact sports — are especially at risk for CTE. Research has shown that repeated concussions are a top risk factor for CTE. So far this NFL season, which still has more than a third of the games remaining, there have been 62 concussions, according to PBS.

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KannaLife was founded in 2010 by Thoma Kikis and Dean Petkanas. They set out to use cannabinoids — a type of naturally occurring chemical compound found in marijuana — to treat diseases that affect the brain. The cannabis plant contains more than 400 chemicals. KannaLife is working with non-psychoactive cannabinoids, especially cannabidiol (CBD). The company spent two years working to acquire a license from the National Institutes of Health to commercially develop a patent on CBD.

In 2010, the NIH granted KannaLife exclusivity to develop a treatment for Hepatic Encephalopathy, a disease of the liver and brain that stems from cirrhosis. Kikis told VICE News that while they were working on the treatment for HE, the researchers found that the cannabinoids seemed to shield the brain from neurological damage.

'Our message to the NFL is that they need to lead the science, not follow it.'

In August, the NIH granted the company an additional license on their previous patent to study CTE. KannaLife is the only company with licenses on the US-government held patent on cannabinoids. The NIH still owns the patent, but KannaLife has the exclusive rights to develop drugs with it.

To be clear, the cannabinoids that could possibly be used to treat CTE and other neurological diseases aren't the same variety that caused Gordon to fail his drug test. Renate Myles, spokeswoman for the NIH, told VICE News that the cannabinoids KannaLife is studying under the NIH patent are innocuous.

"This patent describes the therapeutic potential for cannabinoid chemical compounds that are structurally similar to THC, but without its psychoactive properties, thereby treating specific conditions without the adverse side effects associated with smoked marijuana," Myles said.

CTE is caused by an abundance of a protein called tau, which can have ruinous effects on the brain. The cannabinoids protect the brain's neurons by preventing a toxic amount of tau from building up.

"These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement," according to research from Boston University's CTE Center. "The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia."

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While CTE is the most high-profile disease that KannaLife is working to cure, the original NIH patent points out the potential use of cannabinoids to treat a variety of neurological issues caused by stroke, Parkinson's, HIV, and other trauma. So far, KannaLife hasn't researched these applications of cannabinoids.

Even though the NFL has taken steps to help fix the concussion problem it creates — in addition to the multi-million dollar lawsuit settlement, teams are now required to monitor concussed players more closely — it has resisted joining KannaLife in researching a cannabis-based treatment for CTE. Kikis said KannaLife asked to meet with the NFL in 2013, but were rebuffed by the league.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told VICE News that the league has no knowledge of KannaLife or the studies on how cannabinoids could prevent CTE, indicating that talks between the two parties never progressed. In January, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league would consider allowing medical marijuana in the future if experts deem it a legitimate treatment for concussions or other head injuries.

In June, renowned medical marijuana expert Lester Grinspoon, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, sent an open letter to Goodell, urging him to stop testing players for marijuana and fund research on cannabis-based drugs that combat concussion-related brain damage. Still, the league has not relented.

Kikis said he thinks the NFL is holding out because cannabis is a banned substance.

"We tried approaching the NFL in 2013 but they didn't want to meet," he said. "I can understand that they don't want to take a position. But ultimately, they're going to have to make a decision and look into different research to treat concussions."

KannaLife has enlisted former NFL player Marvin Washington to help spread the word about what the company is doing to help potential CTE sufferers, but that hasn't enticed the league to get involved either.

"They have already given the NIH $30 million for research into football related-injuries and we hold a license with the NIH, so we wanted to have a discussion," Kikis said. "But currently cannabinoids are part of their substance abuse policy connected to marijuana. Our message to the NFL is that they need to lead the science, not follow it."

For now, KannaLife continues to conduct clinical trials on cannabinoid treatments for neurological diseases. The company expects to publish its findings in 2015, and to follow that by filing an application with the Food and Drug Administration to approve cannabinoids for treating HE. Once studies are done for CTE treatment, Kikis said his company will apply to make the drug available as soon as possible.

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Follow Payton Guion on Twitter @PaytonGuion