An athlete becomes a legal marijuana grower and part of an emerging debate
The Coloradoan – By. Matt L. Stephens & Kelly Lyell – 09/12/2016
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — If college athletes want to use marijuana, the NCAA likely won’t catch them, and Treyous Jarrells is proof of that. He says he was high in almost every game he played. Now he has given up his dream of a football career for one that’s very different: He has one of 102,620 medical marijuana licenses to legally grow plants in Colorado. And he has a message for organized sports, especially football: It’s time to take marijuana off the banned-substance list.
Jarrells, 23, earned a scholarship to Colorado State University, where he averaged 5.2 yards per carry as a running back as a sophomore in 2014. Then he suddenly quit the team because he was afraid he’d finally get caught and lose his scholarship.
“I practiced under the influence. I played games under the influence. This is my medicine,” Jarrells said. “I’ve seen players at CSU pop five, 10 ibuprofens before practice. Daily. You think that’s good? Over the course of two, three years, that’s eating your liver away.”
Jarrells said he smokes marijuana to relieve chronic pain caused from injuries he suffered from playing football for 13 years, since Pop Warner in Sanford, Fla. Consuming marijuana for medical use is legal in 25 states, including Colorado. Jarrells said the THC in marijuana, which he also consumes through edibles, brings relief without long-term damage.
Jarrells is not alone. A small but growing number of current and former National Football League players are calling for the NFL to consider more research on marijuana. They include former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan and former Baltimore Ravens offensive tackleEugene Monroe.
Despite those pleas from players, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said before Super Bowl 50 last February that the league always reviews its drug policy, and have had talks in the past about medical marijuana, but “not recently.” Goodell went on to say he did not see any changes to the policy in the near future.
Goodell said the league’s medical experts have studied the issue but continue to believe the ban should remain intact for NFL players.
The use of marijuana conflicts with NCAA bylaws and Colorado State University athletics policy. But there is little risk of an athlete being caught. Colorado State’s parameters for drug testing include exceptional performance, reasonable suspicion and random selection. Jarrells said he was never tested.
The issue is complicated by health-related concerns that come with widespread use of university-prescribed opiates to relieve pain. From 2103 to 2016, Colorado State University ordered a combined 19,000 over-the-counter ibuprofens, acetaminophen and naproxen for its approximately 400 student-athletes, according to records obtained by the Coloradoan. By comparison, the University of Colorado in Boulder ordered 37,000 pills for its roughly 350 student-athletes.
It also prescribed 48 Vicodin tablets, although Colorado State’s head trainer, Terry DeZeeuw, said the majority of prescription medications for athletic injuries are filled at a pharmacy in the same manner as the general public and would not be part of the school’s logs.
‘Get my body right’
A tour of Jarrells’ home is a tale of two lives.
In the basement, five pairs of green and white cleats dangle by their laces from the ceiling. His two Colorado State helmets, with receiving gloves on their crowns, rest in opposing corners of the room. The walls are checkered with letters from Utah State,Georgia State and Marshall, reminders of his options coming out of junior college, and newspaper clippings that paint a picture of the athlete he once was.
Then, an unfinished room with ventilation tubing and gardening supplies houses barely recognizable hemp plants in tiny planters scattered across the floor. “Those are the clones,” he says. “Just wait.”
Before unzipping the curtain to the final room, he straps on a pair of white painter’s overalls, throws on his yellow, marijuana-themed sunglasses to block the grow lights and reveals his most prized possessions. There are rows of cannabis plants – Pineapple Express and Blue Haze – waving proudly in a 10-by-10 room set at 83 degrees. The tallest towers more than six feet.
Jarrells’ two lives came together when the football injuries mounted. Playing running back took its toll on his knees. A 2015 surgery to repair a torn meniscus helped, but the pain never went away.
Colorado State student-athletes sign a university drug policy consenting to being tested at any time for any number of reasons. A first positive test requires the athlete to undergo counseling. The second is a mandatory suspension for 15% of the season (two games in football). A third positive test results in dismissal from the team.
Jarrells appeared in 10 games as a sophomore and one as a junior before leaving the Rams. Not once was he tested, he said, despite playing under the influence in 10 of the 11 games he saw action in.
With fewer than two semesters until he graduated college – an accomplishment few in his neighborhood back in Florida ever achieved – he didn’t want to take the chance that he would be caught, thrown off the team and lose his scholarship. So he lied.
He walked into first-year coach Mike Bobo’s office and told him their relationship wasn’t working. Jarrells came to the school because of former coach Jim McElwain and Bobo wasn’t what he signed up for.
A coaching change coupled with the gun slaying of his godfather, Ron Moore, over the summer was taking its toll on classwork, Jarrells said, and he needed to step back from the game or he wouldn’t graduate. Jarrells said Bobo understood and let him leave the team while remaining on scholarship through the end of the academic year.
Jarrells felt if Bobo knew what was really happening, there was no way he’d allow him to stay on scholarship.
“In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘I can’t do it anymore with the pain. I can’t take it. I have to get my body right.’ I knew if I stepped back from the game, they wouldn’t drug-test me, but I could still get my degree.”
Athlete use in decline?
Marijuana is on the NCAA’s list of banned substances, but the only time athletes are tested for THC, the primary psychoanalytic ingredient in marijuana, is at championship events. Random drug tests administered throughout the year are only for performance-enhancing substances, said Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer.
“Every institution oversees marijuana as it sees fit,” Hainline said. “Some schools test regularly for marijuana, and others don’t. Just as some schools test for alcohol, and others don’t.”
Colorado State University tests its student-athletes for marijuana. It does not test for alcohol.
The program is designed to test every athlete an average of once a year, Colorado State head trainer Terry DeZeeuw said. The school tests for all substances banned by the NCAA.
The National Center for Drug Free Sport, which handles testing for the NCAA and more than 300 of its member schools, performed 447 tests for Colorado State during the 2015-16 academic year and 1,903 since 2010-11. Twenty Colorado State student-athletes tested positive for THC last year. The 4.5% rate of unique positive tests was higher than the average over the previous five years of 3.2%, but below the national average for college athletes of 6%, said Drug Free Sport spokesman Gene Willis.
The low rate of positive tests is “a strong indicator that our program is having a positive effect,” Colorado State athletic director Joe Parker said via email.
A study conducted by the NCAA and released in July 2014 found that 22% of athletes at its 1,200-plus member schools had used marijuana in 2013, down 1% from a previous study four years earlier.
Despite its legalization for medical use in 25 states and the District of Columbia, Hainline said there is no science backing the use of marijuana for pain management.
“There are anecdotes of some people who say, ‘Marijuana helps my pain,’ and there’s other anecdotes of people who say ‘I tried marijuana for pain and ended up being hospitalized for a psychiatric, psychotic breakdown,’ ” Hainline said.
The only options available to NCAA athletes are over-the-counter remedies with known long-term side effects including gastrointestinal bleeding and liver failure, or opioids such as hydrocodone (including Vicodin), which can lead to organ failure in addition to being addictive. Vicodin is labeled as a Schedule II narcotic by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Adminstration; marijuana is a Schedule I, which is defined by the DEA as having the highest potential for abuse and which has no currently accepted medical use.
As the rules are written now, Hainline said, an athlete in a state such as Colorado where medical and recreational marijuana is legal could not get a doctor’s note to be exempted from NCAA testing.
The International Olympic Committee has asked Hainline to co-chair a panel with other experts to discuss pain management in elite athletes in November. One of the sub-topics the panel will review is the use of marijuana for pain in athletes. The panel’s findings will be used as a springboard for the NCAA to create a college-specific document for how to treat pain in athletes.
Jarrells still struggles with pain. And he still faces charges from a May arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs. But he’s bottling and selling his own spray to help cannabis and other plants flourish. And he hopes to continue to grow his business.
“These two semesters I wasn’t able to play ball, I was able to make connections for my career,” Jarrells said. “If I would have played ball, I wouldn’t have had those opportunities because I wouldn’t have been in the places to make those connections. Right now, a lot of players who didn’t get into the league, they’re lost right now because they didn’t make connections. … That’s the thing, you’re not a student, you’re an athlete.’’