Alcohol and Painkillers: 'Part of the culture of sport'
INTERVIEW: Former Blues and Scotland international Grayson Hart sheds light on the destructive phenomenon rugby players deal with.
In an interview with Rugbypass writer Jamie Lyall, the former Scotland scrumhalf revealed he was nine years old when his father went to rehab, knowing he needed professional help to rid himself of the scourge of heroin addiction.
Hart was too young to grasp the severity of this peril, too little to realise that the man he cherished and looked up to was in the throes of a grievous battle.
“My dad was a legend to me, a hero. I never saw him as a junkie or a druggie,” Hart told RugbyPass.
“I learnt when I was young that the drug he had an addiction to was heroin and I saw from the age of nine how he turned his life around.
“As we got older, I used to speak to him about it and ask how he fell into it and found his way out of it. He spoke about how he always struggled to live up to that viewpoint in our culture of success and his escape was through drugs and alcohol. It came to the point where he came across heroin – and that is so addictive and horrible a path to lead down.
“Although it had a massive effect on my dad and I saw that first-hand as a kid, he never was homeless. He was still a good dad, loving and supportive and there for us. If he was dropping me off at primary school, none of the other parents would have known he was a drug addict. There are so many out there that you wouldn’t even know.”
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Hart, who now plays for Bedford Blues, saw how addiction floored his father. He saw too how alcohol could seize hold when, at 21, the New Zealander lost his dad to cancer and began drinking excessively to escape the grief. As a professional player, he came to appreciate the dangers of painkiller abuse, watched friends take higher and higher doses of opioids to dull the relentless aches of the game with livelihoods and starting berths at stake.
In his newly published autobiography, Dylan Hartley describes players “gobbling painkillers like Smarties” and the ex-England hooker is far from a lone voice. Former back row Lewis Moody likened himself to a “walking medicine cabinet” in a Rugby World magazine investigation on the issue. Others have detailed being hooked on the opioid Tramadol, which Hart himself began to use prolifically after a shoulder operation in 2016.
“These things can creep up on you, man,” explained the 32-year-old, who began his career with Auckland Blues before joining the NSW Waratahs and then moving to Scotland where he spent four years with Edinburgh and Glasgow.
“In professional rugby, you go for beers after with your teammates or nights out on away trips. It’s easy for something that is part of the culture to become an issue.
“It’s the same way with painkillers. To do an illicit drug, you have got to make a conscious decision or maybe you’re around the wrong people or whatever.
“But alcohol and prescriptions, they are part of the culture of sport and they can easily become abused. It’s so competitive, contracts are on the line, you need to get selected that week so you need to get through the pain.
“That’s where the mentality of ‘I’m just going to pop these pills’ comes in. I was going from three Tramadol pills a day to nine a day within a week because they were losing their effect so I would up the dose. I would find myself with a buzzing feeling, it had an effect on me mentally. I would be dazed and not worried and my communication would change.
“I had seen painkiller abuse in Scotland. I saw multiple players struggling in Scotland – teammates, friends – and in New Zealand and Australia. I was aware of the negative spiral that it could entail, so that led me to research and look at other avenues.”
This quest led Hart to cannabidiol (CBD), a chemical compound derived from the hemp species of the cannabis plant. CBD is the non-psychoactive element of the plant – it neither creates the sensation of being ‘high’ nor seems to be addictive. The psychoactive THC compound is found only in very small quantities in hemp and to comply with UK law, CBD products cannot contain more than 0.3 per cent of it.
WADA removed CBD from its banned list in 2017 and the industry has since exploded with people seeking alternative remedies for pain relief, seizure disorders, anxiety and poor sleep quality. But with a vast array of suppliers pledging all manner of benefits, it remains something of a minefield, particularly for athletes for whom a failed drugs test bears devastating consequences.
Together with then-Glasgow teammate Adam Ashe, Hart founded PureSport CBD two years ago. The company sources its hemp and extracts the CBD in America and sends it for testing at three different laboratories across Europe before it is made into oils, lotions, balms and capsules. The finished products are then lab tested again and, for extra assurance, samples are analysed by America’s banned substances control group (BSCG). Crucially, the BSCG applies ‘Olympic-standard’ third-party testing and has given PureSport its seal of approval.
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“From day one, we saw that the CBD world is referred to as the wild west because there are so many brands popping up,” said Hart, who won three Test caps in 2014.
“There is publicity about brands with illegal THC content, not enough CBD, or falsely advertising about what they could offer.
“It was black and white for us – we were only going to bring to the market product that was safe for drug-tested athletes. Logistically, it’s a lot of work and it’s expensive, but we were never going to make a brand or bring out a product that had any question marks. Otherwise, there was no use in us creating it.
“As pro athletes, we were in the middle of our careers and there was no way we were going to risk ourselves and any other athlete because we know what that would do to your career and reputation. It does cost us a lot, and our margins aren’t as good as other CBD brands.
“But athletes aren’t going to use and endorse things if they don’t work. The testing protocol we use is expensive and eats into our margin but that makes us the brand that we are. If we can show people that the best athletes in the world can use and endorse this stuff with all that they have on the line, then the wider audience can trust it and use it beneficially.”
More and more athletes are turning to CBD. An International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism study published earlier this month revealed more than a quarter of the 517 professional union and league players surveyed use or had used CBD oil. Among the Hart clients at PureSport are Scotland flyhalf Finn Russell, Gloucester’s fulcrum Danny Cipriani, and former All Blacks Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam and Victor Vito.
“You should see our inbox,” Hart said.
“We could make a World XV five times over with guys who are using our products. We have easily over 300 professional players across the globe. I’ve seen how many athletes will say, ‘Man, I’ve stopped taking painkillers, this has helped so much’, and there is an ability to spread it wider. People are seeing the benefit within their own bodies and it is spreading by word of mouth. No athletes were getting paid by us to talk about it on social media.”
There is understandable dubiety about CBD in the scientific sphere. The prevailing view seems to be that more research is needed to fully understand its effects and evaluate any benefits. Some clubs advise their players against its use and trials have shown a high placebo effect. Hart hopes independent science backs up the waves of positive CBD testimony he has received from his peers.
“If clubs looked at the wider CBD issue and wanted to make a general statement to look after their players, they may advise there are risks here because the industry is not well regulated,” he said.
“I would like them to look at it from the perspective of the player, put the player first and see that this is something that could naturally benefit them and get them away from the painkillers, have a positive effect on their recovery and performance, and do due diligence and see which companies can we recommend our players to use that are safe.
“If we can provide the most transparent, trusted product endorsed by household names in sport, we are going to change the narrative. It costs us a lot but it’s just not something that we are willing to shirk on.”
With his thriving CBD business having spawned from the seeds of childhood trauma, Hart now yearns to steer others away from so destructive a path.
By Jamie Lyall, Rugbypass