The NFL and NFL Players Association have strict regulations prohibiting the use of cannabis by active players, even when recommended by a physician. Players can apply for what is called a 'therapeutic use exemption' from the NFL, but none have tried that before last month, when free-agent Mike James (who played for the Detroit Lions last season) made the historic move.
Back in 2013 James suffered a sever ankle injury and was prescribed opioids to help manage the pain. He said he was never worried about the drugs since they were prescribed by a doctor.
"I didn't want to stop, I didn't feel the need to and I didn't see the harm in it," James told CNN.
But when his pill consumption became excessive, James' spouse Aubrey convinced him to try marijuana to relieve the pain. At first, he was dead-set against dabbling with cannabis.
"I thought, 'Weed? No, that's a street drug.' I didn't even want to hear what it had to offer."
But when he finally gave cannabis a try in February of 2018, he was stunned by how effective it was.
"I never had something where I could be coherent and still have pain relief," James said. "I felt like I was beginning a new life."
Now he's putting his career on the line for that new life.
"This is the first active player who's been willing to put their professional career on the line, to openly admit that they not only have been using this cannabis but need it to function at the highest level," said Dr. Sue Sisley, a board member with Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and has been aiding James with his application.
"Mike's case is such a perfect example of why cannabis needs to be made available, because he's really not a candidate for opioids," Dr. Sisley added. "So this is a safe alternative for him."
James says he never intended to become a medical marijuana advocate, having intentionally avoided the drug previously. But these days he says things have changed.
"I'm not ashamed of it," James said. "I'm not embarrassed about it. It is something that I will continue to use, because I have a life to live."
But he might not have a career in the NFL anymore. Last week, the league denied James' request for a cannabis exemption. Which means that he may have to choose between his medicine and the sport he loves - unless he's already been 'green listed' for admitting to using marijuana.
If teams shun the free agent during the offseason, then his application for a cannabis exception was basically a request for early retirement.