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September 22, 2018

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Athletes tout medical benefits of pot as physicians warn of overuse

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Steve Marcus

Marijuana concentrates are shown at Exhale Nevada during a dispensary bus tour sponsored by the Las Vegas Medical Marijuana Association Friday, April 20, 2018.

PORTLAND, Ore. — If 18-year NBA veteran Cliff Robinson had been as transparent about his marijuana usage decades ago as he is now, his career may not have been the same.

Speaking solemnly to hundreds of attendees at the annual Cannabis Science Conference, Robinson said he medicated with the plant before practices and games to reduce anxiety.

“If you play 18 years in the NBA and perform over an 82-game schedule, you’re going to deal with anxiety issues and your ability to relax,” said Robinson, who averaged 14 points and five rebounds per game from 1989 to 2007. “Cannabis has always helped me with that.”

Legalized for sale in Oregon since 2014, marijuana has become more widely accepted thanks to similar laws in Nevada and 28 other states across the country.

Eben Britton, who played with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears earlier this decade, said weed helped take the edge off the “avalanche” of pain pills prescribed to him to deal with pain.

Britton, whose career lasted from 2009 to 2014, said the side effects of opiates — Vicodin, Percocet and Celebrex — he used “just to get through the day” led him to marijuana.

Using pot not only helped him relax after the grind of a practice or game, but helped him be more attentive to his wife and daughter before he went to bed, he said.

“I realized very quickly the prescription drugs would make me feel insane,” Britton said. “They made me feel irritable. I’d have cold sweats in the middle of the night with withdrawal symptoms and a knifing sensation in my gut.”

The NFL and NBA are the only two major sports leagues to test for and punish players for relatively low doses of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Major League Soccer players are tested for pot, but the league does not punish players whose results fall under the lofty limit of 150 milliliters per nanogram of blood. For comparison’s sake, the legal amount allowed in a person’s blood to determine if they are high at the time of a DUI arrest in Nevada is 2 nanograms per milliliter.

Major League Baseball does not test players for pot unless the league finds “reasonable suspicion” to do so, and the NHL does not list marijuana on its list of banned substances.

Massachusetts physician Uma Dhanabalan called marijuana a “miracle plant” that has had a “powerful impact” on the well-being of athletes both during and after their careers. The Harvard-educated doctor moderated the “Doc and Jocks” panel at the conference.

Other medical professionals at the conference said the plant doesn’t come without its fair share of risk — for athletes and other medical patients.

Kristin Wohlschlagel, a medical researcher from Hawaii, studied more than 1,000 medical marijuana patients across the U.S. over a two-year period to monitor the effect of the plant’s interactions with other medications. Wohlschlagel found that high doses of THC interacting with dozens of prescription medicines causes irreparable liver harm.

Contrary to the popular industry saying that “cannabis has never killed anyone,” Wohlschlagel said one patient she studied died of liver-related causes as a result of a frequent high THC dosage combined with common breast cancer drug, Ribociclib. She advised patients using hormone regulators and blood thinners to stay away from THC and popular cannabinoid CBD, taking no more than daily 25 milligrams of THC and 75 milligrams of CBD when using other prescriptions.

“Marijuana is good at stopping seizures and spasms,” Wohlschlagel said. “But not every illness or medical problem is going to have the targets for THC and CBD.”

Debra Kimless, a doctor from Maryland, found that using one to two milligrams of THC in over 100 patients was “a great success.” Like for any drug, the pot doctors said smaller dosages of marijuana, even for medical usage, are in the best interests of the patient’s long-term health.

“We want to keep the ‘med’ in medicine,” Kimless said. “The goal is to use the least amount.”