NFL player makes medical marijuana history: ‘I have a life to live’

Published 3:30 AM EDT, Mon April 30, 2018
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Story highlights

Mike James is the first NFL player to seek a "therapeutic use exemption" for medical marijuana

"My career is at great risk," says the 27-year-old father of two boys

He shares his story in an exclusive interview with CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta

(CNN) —  

NFL running back Mike James calls it his medicine for pain management, but league officials call it a banned substance. Now, James’ athletic career is hanging in limbo because he chose pot over pills.

In 2013, James was prescribed opioid painkillers after injuring his left ankle in a Monday night football game. Within weeks, he developed a dangerous dependency on the drugs.

To get off of the opioids, he turned to medical marijuana for his pain.

Suddenly, “my pain subsided,” James told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in an exclusive interview in the documentary “Weed 4: Pot vs. Pills,” which aired Sunday night.

“I never had something where I could be coherent and still have pain relief,” he said.

As it stands, the NFL and NFL Players Association prohibit active players from using marijuana as part of the league’s policy on substance abuse.

The only way around the policy is if a player has what’s called a therapeutic use exemption indicating that the athlete requires the substance to treat a diagnosed medical problem.

James made history last month as the first player to file for a therapeutic use exemption specifically for cannabis. On Thursday, he received a letter from the NFL, denying his exemption application. He vowed not to give up.

“My career is at great risk,” said James, who is a free agent after being released by the Detroit Lions.

’I thought, “Weed? No, that’s a street drug” ’

Growing up, James vowed that he would never become dependent on drugs. He was raised by a single mother in Florida, and his father was in and out of prison for drug-related offenses, records show.

“Drugs tore up my family,” James said. “So I wanted to just play football, go to school, stay in my books, not get into any trouble.”

By his senior year in high school, James was one of the nation’s top running backs, and he was offered a full athletic scholarship to the University of Miami.

Playing football at the university was a dream for James, but by his sophomore year, he faced a nightmare. On the night of December 20, 2010, his mother died in a car accident.

"My mom was a huge football fan," Mike James says of mom Elgusta, "and I got into football through her."
Mike & Aubrey James
"My mom was a huge football fan," Mike James says of mom Elgusta, "and I got into football through her."

He turned to the sport that both he and his mother loved to help overcome his grief. “For him to be all right and mentally deal with this, he was going to lean on football,” said his wife, Aubrey James.

Three years later, James was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As a Bleacher Report headline put it, James proved that he had the talent to enjoy a “promising future” with the Buccaneers, but then he injured his ankle, and his life changed.

Doctors prescribed a cocktail of opiates to deal with the pain, a common prescription among professional athletes for sports-related injuries.

A study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence in 2011 found that more than half – 52% – of former NFL players reported using opioids during their career, and 71% of those players reported misusing opioids.

The prevalence of current opioid use among those players was 7%, according to that study: about three times the rate of use among the general population. The study included 644 retired players who answered questions in a telephone survey about their opioid use.

James never worried abo