TORONTO — The pain wasn't the same as a midair smack from a hulking linebacker while coming across the middle, but former Detroit Lions superstar receiver Calvin Johnson said he needed some serious relief during his 2016 season on "Dancing with the Stars."
“When I was on the dancing show, I was using a CBD (the non-psychoactive ingredient of the cannabis plant) topical that my buddy gave me because my ankles were swelling up so much that I didn’t think I would be able to finish the show,” Johnson said during an interview with the Detroit Free Press during the Toronto Cannabis Conference last month. “The relief happened almost overnight. I was already open-minded to marijuana, but after that, I became a true believer just because of the experience.”
Former Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson works with young players during the Calvin Johnson Jr. Foundation Catch a Dream football camp held at Southfield high school Saturday, May 20, 2017 in Southfield. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
The topicals helped him stay on ABC-TV's popular dancing competition, where he made it to the finals and finished third out of 13 contestants.
Johnson's former Lions teammate and current business partner, Rob Sims, had a similar cannabis epiphany after he retired.
“When I was finished playing, the prescriptions from the docs stopped. It’s a slippery slope when you come out of the league and you’ve got all the Oxy and Vicodins or whatever you have to manage the pain,” he said. “There has to be a substitution and cannabis ended up being that for me, and helped my wife,” who suffered from Crohn’s disease.
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The two gridiron stars, who retired from the Lions — Johnson in 2016 and Sims in 2015 — became partners in some real estate deals. But when Michiganders voted to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use last November they switched gears, and now are looking to break into the legal weed business in the state.
Former Detroit Lions' football players Calvin Johnson and Robert Sims talking to a crowd at the Cannabis Capital Conference in Toronto. The two gridiron stars are planning on opening medical marijuana grow operations, processing facilities and dispensaries. (Photo: Kathleen Gray)
If they get licensed by the state, they hope to open a grow and processing operation in Webberville and the Saginaw/Bay City region, as well as dispensaries in different locations across the state. Johnson has gotten pre-qualified by the state for a dispensary license, but was one of dozens of entrepreneurs who lost out in their bids for one of 13 coveted dispensary licenses in Traverse City that were awarded earlier this month.
That’s not stopping their bigger plans with a marijuana product line that will go by the name Primitive.
“The word Primitive comes from the idea that there is this medicine we used for thousands of years before we got into the opioids and stuff,” Sims said. “We believe that the benefits and the healing from cannabis comes from a simpler time.”
Players becoming vocal, investing in marijuana
The two are among a growing number of former professional football players who are not only advocating for the National Football League to relax its rules against marijuana use, but also are getting into the lucrative business.
Eugene Monroe, a retired lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, has become a passionate cannabis activist, urging the NFL to lighten up when it comes to pot.
“It’s time for the NFL to change its archaic standards to better protect its players,” he said on his website. “For too long, I’ve watched my teammates and good friends battle with opioid addiction and leave the game with a long road still ahead; it’s time to make a change.”
Monroe, who has donated $80,000 to research on the potential benefits of CBD in treating brain injuries, also is a partner in Green Thumb Industries, a marijuana grow and dispensary business.
Willis Marshall, a former professional football player from Detroit, who owns DaO, a company that produces and sells a line of CBD-infused hair and skin care products. (Photo: Kathleen Gray)
Willis Marshall, a Detroit resident and professional football player with 12 years in the Canadian and U.S. Arena football leagues, is producing and selling a line of CBD-infused hair and skin care products under the DaO label. He’s looking to expand into products that will also contain THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in the cannabis plant that produces the high associated with marijuana.
“Even in the Canadian Football League, where they don’t test for marijuana, prescription drugs are a dime a dozen in the locker rooms,” he said. “They hand them out like candy corn and that's an unfortunate thing.”
And Terrell Davis, the Hall of Fame running back with the Denver Broncos, is launching a CBD-infused line of drinks under the brand name Defy later this year. But it’s strictly hemp-based rather than any connection with marijuana and THC.
In a blog published in Forbes magazine, Davis wrote, “It’s very important to note that if you use a CBD product derived from marijuana, THC may show up on a drug test, which is why athletes prefer hemp-based CBD.”
NFL takes tough view of marijuana
There’s a good reason why football players are waiting for retirement to get into what is increasingly becoming a legal business in many states across America.
The NFL has a strict policy against substance abuse, including marijuana, even though it’s legal for adult recreational use in 10 states, including Michigan, and for medical use in 33 more states.
Neither the NFL nor the NFL Players Association union returned phone and email messages from the Free Press to talk about marijuana policy.
Under the NFL's current contract with players, which was signed in 2011, players are tested once a year between April and August. A first positive test for marijuana lands a player in a substance abuse program without a suspension. That first offense also means that the player will get randomly tested for drugs at any time during the year, even in the offseason.
A second positive test results in a two-game fine, followed by a four-game fine for a third positive test, a four-game suspension for a fourth positive test, and a 10-game suspension for a fifth infraction.
That has been a costly proposition for dozens of NFL players. In the last five years, 117 players have been suspended for substance abuse violations, lost $43.9 million in salary and 552 days of playing time, according to Spotrac.com, a New York-based company that tracks and provides data on major league sports payrolls and contracts.
While the league doesn’t specify what drug the players were suspended for, Marshall estimated that 70%-80% of the suspensions are most likely for marijuana.
“If it's steroids, they'll say it’s steroids or performance enhancing drugs,” he said. “And it’s probably not alcohol or cocaine because that leaves your system a lot quicker than marijuana. And I can’t see any players using heroin or meth and being able to play or even practice on those. So it kind of narrows it down to marijuana.”
That assessment tracks with estimates from retired New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennet, who told the Bleacher Report podcast last year that 89% of NFL players used marijuana, mostly to help with the pain that's inflicted in football games and practice.
“There are times of the year where your body just hurts so bad,” Bennett said. “You don’t want to be popping pills all the time. There are anti-inflammatory drugs you take so long that they start to eat at your liver, kidneys and things like that. A human made that. God made weed.”
The NFL policy has led to players finding ways to game the system, Marshall said, staying clean in the months leading up to the season when players get tested, then falling back on weed to help with the weekly bumps, bruises and worse during the season.
“Players don't want to get hooked on prescription pills, so they’ll cut the marijuana out for few months because they realize it’s not worth risking your livelihood and your family's livelihood,” he said.
Players hope for change in 2022 NFL contract
The NFL contract with players is up for renegotiation in 2022 and the former players hope that the league will consider softening its stance on weed.
“Players should have the opportunity to use this. It’s safe, no one has died from it and it should be made readily available to players,” Sims said. “When you pull the curtain back and look at how guys medicate when they’re done playing, it’s mostly cannabis. From our football buddies, we’re hearing, ‘Yes, finally, it’s about time.’ We’re functioning and we’re fine and we have a great quality of life. I think we were forced into the light for the greater good.”
Michael Stein, a Bloomfield Hills attorney whose clients include Johnson and Sims, said Sims will be someone who players can reach out to for support during the next contract negotiation.
“These guys are at the forefront of this and I anticipate the NFL Players’ Association to start showing some interest,” he said, especially with research that’s being done on the impact of marijuana use on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a progressive degenerative brain disease linked to blows to the head.
Marshall said that with more and more states legalizing marijuana in one form or another, that the federal government — which still categorizes marijuana as a Schedule/Class 1 illegal drug along with heroin, cocaine and LSD — will have to change its tune and decriminalize cannabis.
“The way the country is going right now with states legalizing it, I think it'll be perfect timing in 2022 when the contract is up,” he said. “For the league, it'll be enough time for them to have done their research.”
For Johnson, who doesn't condone marijuana use by active professional players because of the league rules in place, he hopes his efforts at educating the public about the benefits of marijuana will at least destigmatize the discussion around weed.
“I have a lot of family members who are 100% against this. But I know from my experience with the pain and the products that I’ve used, it’s a game changer,” he said. “We’re in a position to impact and support our communities.”
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