Todd Herremans, offensive lineman for the Eagles from 2005 to 2014, has repositioned himself as an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana. Scheduled to be a panelist at the World Medical Cannabis Conference & Expo on April 21 and 22 in Pittsburgh, Herremans spoke with the Inquirer recently about the NFL and cannabis.
How did your marijuana use begin?
It started in college as more of an alternative to drinking. It was as a leisure activity or a social relaxation thing. It fit better with working out and being able to produce the next day without a hangover.
You never felt spaced the next day?
No. I never really had a zoned feeling after. There were times when I tried an edible that lasted longer than expected. But I never had a weed hangover. I just preferred that to alcohol — not to say I didn’t drink, too. But alcohol is a lot more accessible than marijuana.
As a player, did you continue to partake?
When I got in the NFL, I just continued my use until I failed a drug test.
I got put in a program for substance abuse for two seasons. I wasn’t allowed to smoke and was tested every week and that’s when it became clear that cannabis was more than just a recreational thing.
The first season I wasn’t allowed to smoke marijuana is when I felt the wear-and-tear on my body more than ever. I felt things lingering more. The aches and pains were way more evident. That’s when it dawned on me, the relationship between cannabis and its medical attributes.
I came to the conclusion that the policy in the NFL is very backward. I wasn’t allowed to smoke marijuana, but the doctors in the NFL were easy to get to prescribe painkillers. While I was smoking in the NFL, I wasn’t going in asking them for anything for pain.
Do many players self-medicate with marijuana? Or is alcohol the substance of choice?
Alcohol is very prevalent in the league. It's more accepted. It’s legal. You can buy it wherever. I’m sure there were guys who drink just to drink because it takes them somewhere they’d rather be than inside their aches and pains.
How widespread is opioid use and abuse in the NFL?
One out of every seven players leave the NFL struggling with some sort of opioid abuse. That’s a pretty ridiculous number. I think that’s just them getting opioids prescribed to them and later having the meds taken away. Then you have nothing to rely on — and have to go to the street for them.
If marijuana was given as an alternative for pain management, rather than starting out on the opioids you could cut most of that problem off at the head — at least in states where marijuana is allowed for pain management.
Are there any negative side effects for a player using marijuana?
I haven’t seen any. The side effects you’d hear about are increased appetite and dry eyes, and lethargy sometimes. It all depends on the strain.
It’s so funny that people are worried about side effects of marijuana, it's like it’s some big unknown. It’s not. There’s still a lot of research that needs to be conducted, but there’s no unknown for side effects. People have been smoking forever.
No one bats an eye when taking a prescription opioid with a horrible list of proven side effects. It seems silly to me. The way I look at it, if I were an owner of a team in a state where cannabis was allowed as a pain medication, I’d love to have my players offered that alternative. One reason would be to keep them off a very dangerous road of opioid addiction. If your players are medicating themselves with cannabis, it’s unlikely they’ll get in a car, go out partying and get in trouble with the cops. As an owner I’d see it as a win-win.
Do you see marijuana as a supplement or a potential replacement for opioids?
I definitely think that opioids have their place. I’ve been through some surgeries and also had some pretty serious injuries. I don’t know if I could have got full relief from cannabis. There’s a severity of pain that opioids do help with. But there’s a lot of bumps and bruises and daily things that happen in the NFL that don’t need to be hit with something that powerful. I liken it to driving a nail with a sledge hammer. You can find something way less harmful to treat less severe aches and pains.
Do you still take opioids for lingering injuries?
Without question I still get pains. But I don’t feel I need to take opioids for them. I had foot and ankle and a couple of knee injuries. It depends on the day, but the pain is nothing that’s crippling me right now. I’m fairly young  and I feel good. So I keep my fingers crossed.
Marijuana keeps the pain in check. There’s all sorts of anti-inflammatory compounds in cannabinoids, it’s not just something that will take your mind elsewhere. There are other helpful components for it.
What’s your preferred method of ingesting cannabis?
I smoked for the longest time. But I don’t really discriminate against mediums. I like variety. I’m kind of old school and mostly just smoke the flower.
Would you consider cannabis a performance-enhancing drug?
I don’t think so.
What approach do you believe the NFL should take to marijuana?
They could treat it as they do alcohol and not penalize a player unless they publicly get in trouble or endanger somebody. Treat it like that. Or they could treat it like medicine, and adopt a therapeutic-use exemption for players who could get a prescription. It could be treated like Adderall and other prescription drugs.
What do you mean?
For instance, the league has a problem with Adderall — if you don’t have all the paperwork for it. In season, they treat it like a performance enhancer and off season they view it like a party drug. Depending on the time of the year, it’s treated differently.
How do you feel about full legalization for recreational use?
I think it’s silly there’s a prohibition on cannabis. I think there are far worse things that you could have a prohibition on other than a plant. It’s awfully mild to have it outlawed. But [legalization] needs to be done properly.
Has Philadelphia become a more marijuana-friendly town?
Just knowing if police find it in your possession you’ll just get a ticket is a big relief for people in the city. It’s a step in the right direction. It’s a very misunderstood plant that’s had a shadow of misunderstanding over it for so much time, it’s time to rebrand it so people will accept it.
The NFL Players Association is asking for a “less punitive approach” to athletes found using marijuana. What does that mean?
I’m not really sure. I haven’t been inside of those talks, so I don’t really know what their idea of a less punitive approach is. It’s definitely a start. They’re moving in the right direction.
Is there widespread support for a relaxed approach to weed among players and retirees?
Among the retirees, support is huge. It’s easier for retired players to say it’s legitimate, it helps them a lot more than opioids, and they feel better about their quality of life. It’s trickier as an active player. I take my hat off to the guys who stand up and advocate while they're playing. But it’s a commonsense thing. They shouldn’t be shunned or have their contracts affected because of a personal opinion.
How likely is it that the league will ever take a less punitive approach?
They’re going to look for us to give them something, if they give us that. And that’s where it gets sour. I don’t think you should have to bargain for player safety or player health. If this is an issue of health and quality of life, it has to be looked at and considered.
What’s the next step?
I don’t really know. Players who want to use it need to abide by the rules that are in place right now. You’re not hurting anyone but yourself if you fail tests if you’re an active player. It’s important for as many veterans and retired players as possible to keep the conversation going. If the topic becomes normal, if people talk about it, the recurring conversation will tip the scales.
Do you have any interest in working with a cannabis start-up in Pennsylvania or elsewhere?
If I was interested, I’d be too late now. The window for submitting an application to open a dispensary or a grow operation closed [on March 20]. I’ll see what happens, being involved in advocacy has its opportunities. I just want to make the right decision.
It will be interesting to see how everything shakes out in Pennsylvania. To avoid the problems they had with rolling it out in New York, you've got to have doctors who are willing to prescribe and patients who want prescriptions.
There already are several former pros who are in the game: Steelers legend Franco Harris, former Eagle Lito Sheppard, and ex-Bronco Charlie Adams, for example.
For some reason, it’s a very attractive field in general for retired players!