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Ex-Lineman Kyle Turley on NFL Cannabis Ban: ‘This Whole Thing Has To Change’

During his ten-year NFL career, offensive lineman Kyle Turley was known as a tough, passionate, and ferocious player. He may be most remembered for flinging Jets defender Damien Robinson’s helmet during a game (though to be fair, Robinson had just committed a vicious penalty against Turley’s quarterback). Turley played the game in the trenches, where knocks to the head came with every snap. 

After retirement in 2007, Turley turned to music, releasing an album of power country called Anger Management. He never forgot his football roots, though. Turley donated part of the proceeds from album sales to the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, which provides assistance to the retired NFL players who built the league into the powerhouse it is today. 

That work with Gridiron Greats ultimately led Turley to create the Cannabis Gridiron Coalition in late 2014. He saw the need for a treatment center for former NFL players, and he knew from his own experience that medical cannabis can be a positive option for those dealing with debilitating football-related conditions. Over the past year, the Coalition has become a leading voice advocating for a change in the NFL’s cannabis ban, with Turley often joined by former players Nate Jackson, Ricky Williams, Eben Britton, and others.  

“Football is a dangerous game,” Turley said in a recent interview with Leafly. “And, inherently, you're going to have injuries, which come with a lot of pain. As a professional athlete who is expected to earn his contract, it pressures players into using these high-powered medications. And these doctors, in the era I played in, they gave out medications without concern for addiction.”

But for Turley, now 40, it was the neurological issues he feels were brushed under the rug that posed the most danger to him and his family. 

Former NFL player Kyle Turley

He first started experiencing bouts of vertigo during his rookie year. Though team doctors suggested a battery of tests, they never encouraged him to get a brain scan. He didn’t receive his first MRI until a year after he retired, in 2008, when he was rushed to the hospital after passing out in public. (At the time, his vertigo had worsened and was accompanied by episodes of rage and heavy depression.) The test results weren’t surprising, considering the number of concussions he’d suffered over his decade in the NFL. 

“There was this big blurred mass that matched up very evenly with the areas of contact on my football helmet,” he recalled.

Doctors prescribed a series of psychiatric drugs — and that’s when the real trouble started. Wellbutrin, an antidepressant, caused him to nearly commit suicide by jumping out the third-floor window of his house in Nashville. Another psychotropic drug, Depakote, kept his condition in check for nearly six years. But eventually even massive 1,000-mg doses weren’t doing the trick. Turley believes the chemicals in those drugs and the injuries to his brain were a volatile mix. 

“Maybe they could work for people who just have psychological issues, but giving these types of medications to someone whose brain is damaged, that is something I found nearly killed me,” he said.

“It was getting worse and worse, and I was like, I need to talk to someone about this and find a drug that works. And that’s ultimately what I found in cannabis.”

Since February 2014, Turley has sworn off all prescription medication in favor of marijuana. He and his family moved from Kansas City to California, where medical cannabis is legal and accessible, and he has pinpointed the strains that work best for him. Among his life savers are Jack Herer, a sativa-dominant hybrid that he finds eliminates light sensitivity, anxiety, and depression. “I find one joint lasts through the day until you need it at night,” he says.

His “God strain,” as he calls it, is San Fernando Valley OG, another sativa hybrid. “I use that when I really need to get my mind straight,” he says. 

Turley hadn’t used cannabis in high school or college. During his rookie year with the New Orleans Saints, though, the pressure of being a first-round pick set in. He began having trouble sleeping. “One of my teammates rolled me a joint,” Turley recalled. “I was nervous. I told him, ‘I don’t want to jeopardize my career.’ But I never had a better sleep in my life. After I used it as a medicine, I knew there was something to it.”

While Turley has used marijuana to get off the opiates that he believes nearly killed him (“God gave me a gift,” he said), he finds it frustrating that he had to search through the various strains on his own to find his perfect match. Even in 2015, and even in Colorado, the vast majority of physicians aren’t knowledgeable enough about cannabis to be able to help their patients use it effectively. Many of those who are knowledgeable remain fearful of losing their medical licenses because of confusion involving federal law.

“I’ve got all these issues, and I’ve found strains of cannabis that have resolved these issues like no synthetic drug I’ve ever been given by a normal doctor,” Turley said. “This whole thing has to change.”

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Image Sources: Tim Pickett via Flickr Creative Commons