Cannabis for Athletes: Performance Enhancing or a Hazard to Health?
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
You’ve probably heard by now, athlete Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from competing in the 2021 Olympic games due to a positive drug test for THC. This was a move that has divided the public and brought into question how cannabis should be handled. Should professional athletes be barred from having access to a potentially life-changing medicine? Was this a knee-jerk reaction made in haste? Or is there a legitimate purpose to what occurred in these past weeks?
The History of the Ban
There is a deep history on the use of cannabis in the community of professional athletes. Cannabis has been defined as a doping agent since 2004 when the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, became responsible for creating a list of what should be considered “doping” substances. Doping substances are essentially something that increases an athlete's performance. Despite this classification, many athletes have become advocates for cannabis. Mike Tyson is possibly the most famous example of an athlete advocating for cannabis use. He has even gone as far as to create his own brand “Tyson Ranch” which you may have heard of. Former NFL player Ricky Williams has also been a staunch advocate for the benefits of legalizing weed. Some other pro-weed athletes include Steve Kerr of the NBA, Bill Walton of the NBA and Ronda Rousey of the UFC. Other athletes may unofficially be partaking in the benefits of cannabis as well. Michael Phelps was spotted smoking in 2009 and was swiftly suspended for three months. Notably, he did not even test positive. Unlike Sha’Carri this happened after the Olympic season.
So what is the reasoning for classifying cannabis as a doping agent? The World Anti-Doping Agency states that cannabis is classified as a doping agent for 3 reasons. One being that athletes who smoke cannabis have slower reaction times and therefore endanger themselves or others. Two being that cannabis could potentially be performance enhancing based on current studies. And three being that “illicit drugs” are harmful to health and therefore that makes athletes bad role models.
Breaking down these three points and posing some questions, why would a decrease in reaction time lead to a classification of a doping agent? Contrasting this, if cannabis decreases reaction time and could potentially be harmful how does this lead into the second point stating that it is performance enhancing? In addition, CBD is now approved by the WADA as of 2018. If any component of cannabis were to be performance enhancing it would be CBD. CBD is the component that has anxiolytic and anti-inflammatory effects that lead to a decrease in pain and improvement in stress reduction. THC can have an “entourage” effect with CBD. This means that they enhance the effects of each other. Still, the effect would not be great enough to put one athlete ahead of another. Addressing the third point, if an agency is worried about their reputation, it’s as simple as not testing for THC. If an athlete isn’t tested for THC the agency has nothing to worry about. What athletes do in their personal lives to improve their quality of life should not be any organization’s business. The alternative of turning to opioids and other narcotics is much worse than turning to a proven, natural medicine that has almost no downsides. There are many more questions that I could bring up to rebuttal the reasoning given by the WADA but I will leave it at that. Their reasoning for classifying cannabis as a doping agent seems to be born out of the stigma associated with it that has stemmed from the “War on Drugs” starting in the 70s. This stigma has led to a belief that cannabis cannot and should not be used as a medicinal product despite the plethora of evidence that supports it. This is an outdated way of thought that we should all work to educate the public on.
Benefits vs. Risk
Briefly looking at some scientific literature it is clear that the benefits of the product far outweigh the risks. From a recent study published in 2018 titled “Cannabis and the Health and Performance of the Elite Athlete” written by Mark Ware, a literature review was conducted that found there to be no evidence for cannabis’ use as a performance enhancing drug. Therefore, why are we okay with prescribing athletes highly addicting substances like opioids and benzodiazepines instead for their pain and anxiety? Not to
mention the additional unwanted side effects like fatigue, constipation and potentially even death due to overdose that come along with these prescription products. There is an alternative that has been right under our noses this entire time with little potential for abuse and high potential for treatment of different disorders. Additionally, another study published in 2019 titled “Cannabis use in active athletes: Behaviors related to subjective effects” written by Joanna Zeiger found that a combination of THC and CBD had the most benefits with the least amount of adverse effects. CBD only, surprisingly had the least benefits associated with its use. So unfortunately, most athletes at this point in time only have access to the formulation of cannabis that provides the least amount of benefits to them. Lastly, the article “Cannabis and Sport” by M Saugy from 2006 goes over how outdated the practice of testing athletes for THC is. This was published over a decade ago and it was already clear at that time that drug testing was outdated. They go on to state how organizations aren’t
doing it because they want to truly catch someone who’s smoking cannabis, but because they just want to appease the generations of people that have been taught that weed is “bad”. They also briefly talk about how the process of drug testing for THC is not even worth it. Some individuals may be able to just drink a ton of water and get away with smoking regularly apart from when they are being tested. The other issue is how long THC stays in your system. Since it can stay in your system for weeks it’s impossible to know if the athlete is regularly and currently partaking or if they last smoked weed several weeks ago. The entire process of drug testing for cannabis is flawed from the reasoning behind it to the actual tests themselves.
In recent news, Nevada voted on July 7th 2021 to not discipline boxers or MMA fighters for cannabis use. This is a big deal as Nevada’s athletic commission is one of the most strict in the United States. This move is following what Florida did in May and hopefully other states will follow as well. California and New York both still test and penalize their fighters but have minimal penalties. The real question here is why is this necessary at all? If a fighter is using marijuana socially, this should in theory be treated the same way as socially drinking. They are both legal in the state of Nevada for individuals 21 and older. In fact, alcohol is more harmful with zero positive attributes and is heavily promoted by sports and athletes. If anything, weed is less harmful, has many positive, health attributes and is not even being marketed in depth at this current time.
Stigma is still the largest opponent of the cannabis industry. If the war on drugs did not create a prejudice towards cannabis, we could have far more research today and more disease states to potentially treat. We are still working to catch back up to where we should have been decades ago. The recent incident with Sha’Carri Richardson has just put this on a spotlight for the public once again.
What's an Athlete to do?
In the meantime, what should you do? If you are in the position where you are able to use THC products, here are some suggestions for athletes. Sativa cultivars (like Maui Girl and Grapefruitz) generally make users feel energetic and alert and can be useful for increasing focus and finding your f