-from Bleacher Report
Jake Plummer stands in a grassy meadow on a breezy spring afternoon, a Rocky Mountain peak framing his backdrop. He poses heroically, if just a little self-consciously, for yet another medical marijuana-related photo shoot.
The dramatic setting and dramatic pose demand a dramatic pronouncement.
"This is to wake up the whole population, not just the NFL," he says as the photographer snaps away.
The meadow Plummer stands in is behind a laboratory tucked into a nondescript corporate campus in Boulder, Colorado. The laboratory transforms cannabis and hemp into products that—according to preliminary research and a host of testimonials—can do everything from relieve pain to prevent seizures to, just maybe, repair a damaged brain.
Plummer is a leading advocate for the medical marijuana movement. But despite the rugged setting of his photo shoot, he is hardly a lone voice in the wilderness. Players such as former Ravens tackle Eugene Monroe and Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan now stand beside him. So do the mothers of young children whose lives were saved by cannabis-derived chemicals. And former players coping with the debilitating aftermath of their NFL careers. They want the NFL to relax its hard-line stance on cannabis in all its forms and support research into medical marijuana's potential as a neuroprotectant, a substance that can protect (or even repair) a damaged brain.
Standing in Plummer's way? A league slow to change, cautious/suspicious lawmakers and a stigma against marijuana and its stereotypical users.
Those are powerful foes. But with current players starting to speak out and parents shouting from the mountaintops about miracle cures, Plummer has much more than a Rocky Mountain breeze at his back.
"I found myself leading a movement that cannot be stopped," he says. "There is no way you can stop a movement like this."
Plummer considers himself lucky by the standards of retired NFL players. He still has a substantial chunk of his football earnings in the bank. He has a happy family and a cabin on a lake in Idaho. And he still loves football enough to coach it in the Idaho hinterlands, at tiny rural high schools where, he says, "Kids eat Fig Newtons on the sideline."
The 41-year-old Plummer also has his health. Relatively speaking.
"I had pain. That's why I left the game after 10 years," he says. "It was just the beatdown. Having to take anti-inflammatories all year to get through the season. I didn't like the way my body was feeling."
Joey Porter hits Jake Plummer in 2006, Plummer's final NFL season (Photo by Sporting Newsvia Getty Images).
The pain was in Plummer's throwing shoulder, lower back and, most noticeably, his hips. He tore both hip labrums at some point during his NFL career. He required major surgery. Plummer was nearly immobilized for eight weeks, hobbling a few steps per day on crutches. He started to have what he calls "deep thoughts."
"I was miserable," he says. "I was mad, pissed off. Questioning:Why the hell did I play football?
"That's when I started to understand the medical side of marijuana and cannabis: to help with the pain. And also with a lot of the deep thoughts when lying in bed."
"I WAS MISERABLE. I WAS MAD, PISSED OFF. QUESTIONING: WHY THE HELL DID I PLAY FOOTBALL?"
— Jake Plummer
During his playing career, Plummer tried to avoid opioids and other painkillers. He wanted the feedback that pain provided as his body recovered. He also distrusted opioids and hated the bloating and stomach discomfort that came from the steady stream of anti-inflammatories in his body.
"Then I'd get off of them for the bye week and I could barely walk," he says.
After hip surgery, he avoided the Percocet and other painkillers prescribed to him as much as possible, not to mention the side-effect medications (anti-constipation drugs, for instance) prescribed with them.
Eventually, a former teammate introduced him to a cannabis-based chemical called Charlotte's Web, a substance that purportedly had anti-inflammatory properties without intoxication or other side effects.
Plummer prefers to not go into specifics about whether he used marijuana during his playing days. A product of the "Just Say No" '80s, he says he saw people close to him use the drug occasionally without becoming hopeless addicts.
"I thought, 'Wow. They're not dumb. They're not criminals. They are intelligent, polite and nice,'" he says. "I knew there was a misconception about what a user was."
And the substance recommended to him did not promise or threaten a buzz.
So Plummer, who even avoided over-the-counter supplements as a player, began taking the cannabis-derived oil. He didn't make any other lifestyle change
I haven't gone gluten-free or sugar-free or started meditating five hours a day or doing yoga," he says. "I do everything I always have, except I take Charlotte's Web."
And as a result, he says, his muscle and joint pain is mostly gone. So are most of the random headaches he used to suffer.
"I don't have those creaky five or six first steps anymore," he says. "I can get down on the ground and play Legos with my kids. I can sit down on my feet with my knees bent, jump up and take off."
No wonder Plummer became an apostle to the medical marijuana cause. Though the term "medical marijuana" can be misleading. Despite its potential health benefits, the substance he takes cannot legally be called "medicine." And it's not precisely marijuana, either.
Long ago, the "cool" kids who smoked behind the rec center called it "ditch weed." It grew in roadside culverts and fallow fields across America, its leaves blooming into seven-pointed glory as if it were posing for a close-up on a Grateful Dead album cover. But a choir boy could smoke a Macanudo-size blunt of it and feel nothing more than a headache.
It was feral hemp, country cousin to the stuff cultivated in basement hothouses for maximum intoxication, surprisingly (and, for some, frustratingly) low in the chemical THC, which can make Scooby-Doo cartoons and stale Oreos seem like a productive Friday night.
"That's where Charlotte's Web comes from, my friend," says Joel Stanley, CEO of CW Hemp.
Stanley and his brothers, founders of the company that makes Plummer's cannabis-derived supplement of choice, come from a conservative Christian family in Texas. Stanley's CW Hemp (and some other Colorado cannabis product manufacturers/dispensaries) established a nonprofit research and advocacy organization called Realm of Caring. Realm of Caring produced a promotional campaign entitled "When the Bright Lights Fade" to illustrate how medical marijuana can help retired NFL players. Plummer is the primary spokesperson for When the Bright Lights Fade, as well as a general advocate for the cause.
Joel Stanley (in the middle of the first row) poses with his brothers (Photo courtesy of CW Hemp).
Stanley—who does not smoke marijuana, saying he does not enjoy its effects—laughed when his brothers left home to establish one of Colorado's first dispensaries.
"I always thought the prohibition was ridiculous," he says. "The amount of people going to jail over possession of a plant was hysterical. But I laughed at the idea of marijuana as medicine."
When Stanley visited his brothers and met chemotherapy patients whose quality of life had improved significantly because of marijuana's anti-nausea, appetite-stimulant and pain/anxiety alleviation properties, he left the Texas oil industry and began selling marijuana.
The search for new uses for cannabis led the brothers to investigate government patent 6630507, which classifies cannabidiol, or CBD, a molecule that can be extracted from cannabis plants, to be "useful" or have "particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and HIV dementia."
That's right, the U.S. government simultaneously classifies marijuana as a Schedule I illicit drug with no medicinal value and issues patents (to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, no less) saying it can help treat some of society's most troubling diseases.
No wonder the NFL is a little confused and cautious.
But the problem with isolating CBD for its medical potential is that most of the marijuana sold at concerts for 50 years was bred to maximize THC, the "fun" molecule that would intoxicate patients instead of helping them.
To create a neuroprotectant substance that didn't get you high, the brothers would have to buck both market trends and half a century of selective breeding. So it was off to America's roadside ditches in search of raw materials.
"It was all the weed that no one wanted," Stanley says. "If someone told a story about seeing feral hemp while driving, we drove out and found it."
Bulk hemp like this can be shipped legally to all 50 states, but it cannot get you high (Photo by Matt Nager / Special to Bleacher Report).
One of the first stops on a tour of the CW Hemp laboratory—the one beside the meadow where Jake Plummer issued his wake-up call—is a room filled with bags of hemp the size of bags of topsoil.
The aroma in the room is unmistakable for anyone who has led a varied life. The juvenile portion of the subconscious does a cartwheel at the sight of the bags.
But Vijay Bachus, director of lab operations at CW Hemp, warns that the hemp in the bags has a THC level of 0.3 percent, making it a bulk agricultural product. If you are seeking a buzz, you would be better off smoking a hunk of rope.
"It's orders of magnitude below what you're getting from a recreational dispensary," Bachus says.
The hemp is tested for everything from molds to pesticides. Then the CBD is extracted chemically and mixed with an olive- or coconut-oil base in a series of carefully partitioned labs. The CW Hemp employees wear hairnets and safety goggles, with the extraction and packaging process set up to meet Food and Drug Administration standards.
"You're not going to find this anywhere else in the medical marijuana industry," Bachus says. "You're going to find guys in a garage or a warehouse listening to reggae."
The resulting CBD oil is mixed with mint-chocolate flavoring to make it palatable and then bottled by hand. Asked what would happen if one chugged a whole bottle of the stuff, Bachus says it is so harmless the person would only risk "maybe a little diarrhea from drinking all of that olive oil."
et this substance cured Plummer's post-NFL aches and pains. It could treat Alzheimer's. And the possible connections to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and concussion-based ailments are too obvious to belabor.
It all sounds a little too good to be true. Plummer wouldn't be the first famous quarterback to get snookered by some voodoo science and a touch of the placebo effect.
It would be easy to write this all off as minty Jake the Snake Oil—except Plummer isn't the one making the most compelling claims.
Heather Jackson is a medical marijuana activist, the mother of a child with a disability and a woman who is anything but shy about stating her agenda.
"To be very honest with you, I'm capitalizing on this national conversation," she says, "not only to help football players but to help kids like my son."
Jackson's son Zaki was born with Doose syndrome, a deadly form of early-childhood epilepsy. He began having seizures at four months old. He was soon having hundreds of them per day. He had them through the night. During the worst of them, he would stop breathing.
"The first thing I did in the morning for years was check on my son and make sure he was alive," Jackson says.
Zaki Jackson (left) has been seizure-free for three years (Photo courtesy of Realm of Caring).
By age nine, Zaki was on hospice. Developmentally, he was still a toddler: incontinent, only able to speak a few words, unable to identify colors. The steroids Zaki took as epilepsy treatment caused cataracts and bone loss.
A hospice professional discreetly steered Jackson toward Charlotte's Web. The Stanley brothers had just had their first major success treating childhood seizures with Charlotte Figi, after whom their company is now named.
Jackson was a skeptic and researcher by nature.
"I needed to know that this could be tested," she says.
The Stanley brothers, meanwhile, were understandably cautious about their second foray into pediatric treatment.
Eventually, the marijuana grower who doesn't smoke marijuana and the skeptical mother with no other options decided Zaki had nothing left to lose. They administered a tincture of CBD oil to a child who had been suffering brief, violent seizures every two to 10 minutes for days before the treatment.
Zaki was seizure-free for the next 48 hours.
When the seizures returned, Jackson began adjusting the doses.
"I was doing my own little personal clinical trial on my kid," she says.
After three months on no other drugs but CBD oil, Zaki had his last seizure on Oct. 3, 2012. Now 13 years old, Zaki can ride a bike, knows the alphabet and can write.
Zaki and Charlotte are not alone. Thousands of families have moved to Colorado in search of CBD treatment. Jackson, through Realm of Caring, helps subsidize families who are relocating and paying for substances not covered by health insurance. CW Hemp claims a 70 to 75 percent success rate for seizure treatment.
There's an irony to Plummer, or any NFL player, being the spokesman for what's going on here—for what these scientists and mothers/activists are trying to do.
"IF THE NFL DOESN'T WANT TO FUND THIS RESEARCH, THEY WILL HAVE TO LOOK ME IN THE EYE AND TELL ME. THAT'S HOW THAT'S GOING TO GO DOWN."
— Heather Jackson
"Ultimately, the moms are the ones that kept this thing alive," Plummer says. "Now, us overpaid, privileged athletes come in to benefit from it but also to bring awareness to it.
"These kids are basically on hospice. They're done. 'Sorry, we can't help you.' But you bring the NFL in and people are like: 'The NFL? Oh my God—these poor football players.'
"If we have to bring current players, former players, mothers with their sick children in front of the powers that be...that's a powerful statement."
If that happens, the football players aren't the ones the powers that be need to worry about.
"If the NFL doesn't want to fund this research, they will have to look me in the eye and tell me," Jackson says. "That's how that's going to go down."
Both Sides of the Coin
The research Jackson is referring to is a series of studies designed by Dr. Ryan Vandrey, a behavioral pharmacology expert at Johns Hopkins University and one of the nation's leading marijuana researchers.
The most critical study is now underway. It is an anonymous yearlong survey of all the drugs current NFL players take, from over-the-counter pain relievers to prescription medications to recreational drugs, which could then be used to isolate how often a cannabis-related substance is used, its effectiveness as a painkiller, any other medical benefits, its drawbacks, its side effects and so forth.
No standoff between Jackson and the NFL proved necessary. Monroe provided the primary funding for the research. "The stress you put your body and minds through during a season can have detrimental side effects that can last the rest of your life," reads the introductory letter, co-signed by Monroe and Plummer. "If your health and well-being are important to you please sign up for this monumental study on substance use and player health."
"We want to find out: What all drugs do these players take? Alcohol, opioids, cannabis, anti-inflammatories?" Plummer says. "How it helps them. How it affects their sleep. How clearheaded they are. How it affects their healing during the week. We want to see how all of this affects them."
For such a study to be scientifically valid, Vandrey needs a large and diverse sample of players.
"There's no value in recruiting a bunch of people who think weed is great and asking them to take part in a cannabis study," Vandrey says.
That means current NFL players who use cannabis must know participation in the study won't immediately place them on the NFL's drug-testing fast track and NFL players who don't use cannabis must know they won't be assumed to be cannabis users if they take part in the study.
The questionnaires sent to players in late August contain detailed assurances of privacy from Vandrey.
"Your information is protected by federal privacy laws," he writes. "We have obtained a Certificate of Confidentiality preventing disclosure of your name or survey responses, and the research team will make no disclosures about who participated in the research study."
Vandrey is as far removed from the stereotypical tie-dye legalization advocate crowd as the minty non-psychoactive CBD oil is from Pineapple Express. An internet search of Vandrey produces a blog post calling him an "anti-pot professor" who may be a "lap dog" for anti-legalization lobbyists.
Vandrey's research tells pro-legalization extremists things they don't want to hear. Despite the "100 percent harmless" drumbeat often sounded in the cannabis community, marijuana dependence, habituation and withdrawal are possible for heavy smokers. Dispensaries around Colorado are dangerously cavalier aboutlabeling the contents and potency of their products (imagine thinking you are drinking a light beer only to discover you've been guzzling something as strong as 12-year-old Scotch). And nearly all medicinal claims about marijuana are premature, if they are substantiated at all.
Vandrey, in other words, speaks the NFL's language.
"If you're not out in the streets running around saying that everyone should be smoking weed all of the time, some people take that as meaning you're a hater," he jokes. "My purpose is to do objective research and to look at both sides of the coin."
According to Vandrey, medical marijuana exists in a "regulatory negative space." Twenty years of legalized medical marijuana in California and elsewhere has produced many case studies indicating cannabis products are useful pain relievers and have other medicinal properties. But there have been few rigorous double-blind scientific studies.
Is cannabis really more effective and less harmful than a prescription opioid? If so, is CBD or THC doing the heavy lifting? What's the recommended dosage rate? Do CBD or THC interact dangerously with other compounds?
Many NFL players have self-medicated with marijuana for pain or anxiety. But perhaps they just need anti-inflammatory CBD, not intoxicating THC. Or perhaps a dollop of THC in the recipe can ease depression or anxiety without impairing the user. And maybe one dosage rate of such a substance can be helpful while a higher rate leads to a dependence risk.
Those are the questions Vandrey wants to answer.
"We're starting with a sledgehammer," he says. "And we want to refine it down to a fine chisel."
Vandrey and the Plummer/Realm of Caring crowd would appear to be strange bedfellows at first, but they are working toward a common cause.
"I need Ryan, because I am biased," Jackson says. "I think the plant's amazing. And I can tell you what the results are going to be right now."
Says Vandrey: "Some advocates only want to hear good news. The folks at Realm of Caring want to hear news."
Plummer himself understands the NFL's cautious approach.
"Let's find evidence," he says. "Let's research this. Let's make sure the claims are legit.
"Who knows? Maybe there will be a marijuana doctor for each team who makes sure these guys are taking these things correctly."