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Former ’Canes RB Mike James Becomes First Active NFLer to Seek A Medical Exemption for Marijuana

How a former team MVP hopes to change the NFL from within in regards to the league’s stance on cannabis consumption.

Miami v Georgia Tech Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Making headlines on the field is nothing new for most guys who pass through the University of Miami football program. The school has bared witness to national champions, Heisman trophy winners and countless All-Americans. Away from the field, ’Canes definitely have their own flare for personality, bringing attention and notoriety along with them.

Former Hurricanes’ running back Mike James now carries the fight for acceptance under his arm after applying for a therapeutic use exemption for marijuana in the NFL.

Having committed to the University of Miami by way of Ridge Community High School in Davenport, Florida, as a four-star running back (according to 247 Sports), James was used in multiple ways as a ’Cane. He started as a fullback, worked as a kick returner, and ultimately got touches carrying the rock, the Haines City, Florida, native did just about every job you can do on offense—save for playing quarterback.

Miami v Georgia Tech Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

During his career at the U, James accumulated many accolades away from the field, such as Community Service Man of the Year (2012), the Captain’s Award (2012), the Melching Leadership Award (2012) and winning the Jack Harding Team MVP award in 2012 as well. Rushing for 1,340 rushing yards with 67 receptions and 585 receiving yards during his time at UM, James was a contributor on the field as much as he was a staple of his South Florida community.

In a recent article by CNN writer Jacqueline Howard titled NFL player makes medical marijuana history: ‘I have a life to live’, the writer transcribes from James’ testimony in the CNN Docu-series “Weed 4: Pot vs. Pills”, an exclusive one-on-one interview with the former Ridge Community High School star. In the interview, James reveals how an injury suffered during his time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers led him down a dark path. It was 2nd and goal for Tampa in the Miami Dolphins’ territory. Lined up in the backfield, James took the handoff from QB Mike Glennon and jump-cut by a Dolphins’ defender close to the line scrimmage. Seeing the endzone ever-so-close, James pumps his legs toward the goal-line. As he falls forward, Dolphins’ LB Dannell Ellerbe latches onto James’ hip, slowly sliding down as James falls forward, toward the goal-line. The entire weight of Ellerbe lands on the left ankle of James. Trying to shake it off, James immediately picks himself off the ground, yet after a few steps crumples back to the grass of Raymond James Stadium, writhing in pain. After the medical staff evaluated James, the cart is called. The former ’Cane is unable to make it back to the locker room of his own will. Having been loaded unto the cart, still feeling pain in his left ankle, then-Dolphins’ defensive end (and former Hurricane teammate) Olivier Vernon consoles a downtrodden James before the cart whisks him away to get scans of the severity of his injury. It was soon confirmed: James broke his ankle.

Miami Dolphins v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

To suffer a debilitating injury in your rookie season is a difficult situation to undertake at any point in a player’s career, yet James relied on more than one pill a day to get him by. To deal with the pain from the injury, James was prescribed opioid painkillers. After the surgery where wires and rods were inserted into his ankle for stability, James consumed what was described as a cocktail of opioids to deal with the pain. While the opiods did accomplish their intentional purpose of providing pain relief the rookie rusher, James soon became dependent on these drugs, which are not meant for long-term use. Soon, James was taking two dozen painkillers a day. As Howard points out in the article, 52% of the NFL players in 2011 reported using opioids during their career, and 71% of those players reported misusing opioids.

”Because [he] was getting them from a doctor,” James had no concern about developing an addiction to opioids. “I didn’t want to stop, I didn’t feel the need to, and I didn’t see the harm in it” was the response James had when his family grew concerned with his dependence on painkillers. With 2.5 million Americans believed to be dealing with opioid abuse, James soon became another drip in the leaking faucet of the crisis.

It was on the recommendation of his wife, Aubrey James, that the former UM back decided to give medicinal marijuana a try. However, James was fairly sceptical of the endeavour. “I thought, ‘Weed? No, that’s a street drug.’ I didn’t even want to hear what it had to offer.” Yet James eventually gave the green stuff a try, which helped him wean off of heavy opiate use. With support from family and friends, Mike James appeared reborn. By turning to cannabis for treatment, the football star managed to elevate himself to a better space physically, mentally and emotionally. However, there was a catch.

Cannabis is on the NFL’s list of banned substances.

After trying it out for medicinal purposes in 2014, James was forced to give it up shortly after because of the NFL’s stance on the drug. Having tried it again in 2017 for therapeutic reasons, James would go on to fail the NFL’s routine drug testing program in August of the same year, with October results indicating that he tested positive for marijuana. It’s because of that positive test that James decided to file for a therapeutic use exemption for cannabis with the NFL. James, not former NFL running back Ricky Williams, is the first active player to file a specific therapeutic exemption for cannabis.

A week after officially filing the exemption with the help of Doctors for Cannabis, James received a letter from the NFL denying his exemption.

While the NFL continues to stick to its guidelines, the world around them is changing, becoming more open toward medical and recreational use of cannabis. With 29 states currently allowing some legal forms of cannabis, the perception of marijuana consumption has changed. Whether the NFL stops looking at marijuana consumers as Cheech and Chong clones or dismissing the studies as ranting lunacy shows remains to be seen. It is definitely one of the significant paradoxes in the game: urging players to seek the best treatment, and then putting the kibosh to it when they do find it.

For their part, the NFL Players Association has softened their stance on the subject, asking for leaner punishments for players who test positive for cannabis. Given the year-long punishment that Ricky Williams was subject to after failing multiple drug tests because of his consumption of cannabis, this is certainly a step in the right direction. Slowly, but surely, there’s some progress being made. Despite opinions around cannabis being more socially acceptable, it appears that the decision-makers at the NFL offices would rather wait until a federal repeal on the drug is made before the league eases off its hardline stance.

With cannabis no longer being grouped with hardline drugs, each year the possibility that it will become legalized grows closer for those who advocate its usage. From helping people overcome significant injuries, such as Mike James, to relieving headaches and anxiety, symptoms that apply to the general public, like it or not, cannabis is becoming a more socially acceptable practice.

As for Mike James, he’s not worried about being labelled as ‘just another pothead’. “I’m not embarrassed about it. It is something that I will continue to use, because I have a life to live.” After being released by the Detroit Lions, James is a thirty-year-old free agent who doesn’t mind being the face for the campaign to make cannabis an accepted form of therapeutic treatment in football. James can change the game away from the field, a feat that when it’s accomplished will mark him as a pioneer of the game.