The Great Cannabis Olympian

Despite the recent wave of Cannabis legalization and decriminalization that swept the world like a tidal wave (whether medicinal or recreational use), the plant is still susceptible to scandal in the public sphere. More often than not, it’s a scandal surrounding prominent figures in our society and weed. More specifically, the scandal takes the form […]

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Is Cannabis a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

Controversy surrounding the use of cannabis by athletes leading up to the Olympic Games has reignited debate over whether cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug and what role it should play in the world of sports. In early July during the lead-up to the pandemic-delayed games, American sprinter and Olympic hopeful Sha’Carri Richardson was denied a place on the U.S. Olympic track team after testing positive for marijuana. And only days before the games began, Dominican baseball player Diego Goris was dropped from his country’s Olympic roster after it was revealed he had tested positive for cannabis at a qualifying match in June.

But why is marijuana banned for athletes? Is cannabis a performance-enhancing drug?

Ban Based on Inconclusive Evidence

The notion that cannabis can help an athlete be faster, stronger, or otherwise enhance performance is key to the ban on marijuana for athletes by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the group that sets the standards for the use of substances in sports. But the evidence to support that assertion is thin and inconclusive at best. In fact, some researchers believe that cannabis can hinder, rather than enhance, performance.

In a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine in 2018, investigators determined that while the use of cannabis in sports was not unusual, the notion that cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug was not supported by research. They also called for further study into the potential therapeutic effects of cannabis for athletes.

“Although cannabis use is more prevalent in some athletes engaged in high-risk sports, there is no direct evidence of performance-enhancing effects in athletes,” the authors of the study wrote in their conclusion. “The potential beneficial effects of cannabis as part of a pain management protocol, including reducing concussion-related symptoms, deserve further attention.”

In 2020, a systematic review of available research into the use of cannabis in sports found that marijuana actually inhibited some aspects of performance, such as a causing a reduced ability to maintain effort and maximum work capacity. The research also found that cannabis could induce undesirable physiological responses including increased heart and breathing rates and a neurological effect on balance.

One study in the analysis of eight peer-reviewed publications and 10 literature reviews concluded that the drug “does not act as a sport performance enhancing agent as raised by popular beliefs” and warned against the use of cannabis by athletes.

“Thus, cannabis consumption prior to exercise should be avoided in order to maximize performance in sports,” the authors of the study wrote.

Other specialists in the field also believe that there is little evidence that cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug. One such expert is David McDuff, a sports psychiatrist and professor at the University of Maryland who is also a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Mental Health Workgroup.

“I think the consensus, in the absence of clear-cut information, is that cannabis is more likely to be viewed as performance-detracting rather than performance-enhancing,” McDuff said. “Some studies suggest that consuming marijuana has negative effects on skills such as motor coordination and mental alertness that are required in many sports — but even there, little direct evidence exists of such effects in athletes.”

Why is Cannabis Banned in Sports?

With so little support for the idea that cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug, many believe the ban on marijuana and cannabinoids other than CBD should be revisited. But just why was cannabis in sports banned in the first place?

WADA first added cannabis to its list of banned substances after Canadian RossRebagliati won the Olympics’ first snowboarding gold medal in 1998. After the results of a drug screening taken during the competition were positive for marijuana, Olympic officials stripped the medal from Rebagliati. When he appealed the decision, noting that cannabis was not on the WADA list of performance-enhancing drugs, the gold medal was returned to Rebagliati, and marijuana was added to list of banned substances.

Since then, WADA has defended the ban on cannabis in sports, including in the wake of furor generated by the disqualification of Richardson. In 2011, two members of the agency and a toxicologist at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse published a research review titled “Cannabis in Sport” that was published in the journal Sports Medicine. In it, the authors wrote that “cannabis can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.” Critics of the review claim its findings are unsubstantiated and not supported by science, noting that one study it cites actually found that cannabis reduced the performance of cyclists participating in the research.

In September 2017, WADA removed CBD from its list of prohibited substances. But marijuana and all other cannabinoids, including THC, remain on the list of banned substances. However, the ban on cannabis in sports does not hinge solely on its potential as a performance-enhancing drug. In its reasoning for the ban, WADA notes that athletes who use cannabis in competition may have a greater risk of injury. The agency also writes that the “Use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world.”

Under WADA rules, those two additional reasons are enough to continue the ban on cannabis in sports. And with the nearly worldwide continued prohibition of cannabis and its resulting status as an illicit drug, it seems the ban on athletes using marijuana is likely to last as long as the failed but continuing War on Drugs.  

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Cannabis in the Olympics

For those old enough to remember the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan, you may also recall when Ross Rebagilati made history — twice. He was the first athlete to win an Olympic gold medal for Men’s Snowboarding and was subsequently disqualified and stripped of his medal after a drug test revealed trace amounts of THC […]

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Episode 366 – Marijuana Today Turns Seven!

Founding regulars Betty Aldworth and Taylor West join host Kris Krane to talk about the recent unjust snubbing of 21-year-old sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson from the U.S. Olympic team after she failed a drug test for cannabis, as well diving into the past seven years that Marijuana Today has now been publishing. Produced by Shea Gunther.

Photo: Dark Dwarf/Flickr

Up In Smoke: Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension for cannabis and the war on doping

It won’t help you win a gold medal, but the biggest danger of cannabis is, according to WADA, being illegal. “People don’t understand what it’s like to have to … go in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain,” said Sha’Carri Richardson in an interview on Today. When a reporter inappropriately […]

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Positive Marijuana Test May Keep Sha’Carri Richardson Out Of Olympics

U.S. track and field phenom Sha’Carri Richardson may not be able to represent her country at the Olympic Games in Tokyo later this month after failing a drug test for THC metabolites. The positive test result was announced on Friday by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which added that Richardson has accepted a one-month suspension for the rule violation.

“The rules are clear, but this is heartbreaking on many levels; hopefully, her acceptance of responsibility and apology will be an important example to us all that we can successfully overcome our regrettable decisions, despite the costly consequences of this one to her,” said USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart in a statement from the agency.

Richardson won the women’s 100-meter event at the U.S. track and field trials held in Eugene, Oregon last month, a feat that should have earned her a spot on the Olympic squad. However, the 21-year-old athlete failed a drug test administered after the event, disqualifying her results and triggering the action by the USADA.

Marijuana Banned By Anti-Doping Agencies

Both the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and the USADA follow the rules set by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which bans all forms of cannabis except CBD. The USADA noted in its statement that the “2021 World Anti-Doping Code newly classifies THC as a “Substance of Abuse” because it is frequently used in society outside the context of sport.”

In an interview with NBC on Friday morning, Richardson said that she consumed marijuana after learning of her biological mother’s death while training for the Olympic trials in Oregon, where cannabis is legal for both medical and recreational use.

“I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do … and I still made that decision,” Richardson told NBC News. “I’m not making an excuse or looking for empathy in my case. However, being in that position in my life, finding out something like that … Dealing with the relationship I have with my mother, that definitely was a very heavy topic on me.”

“It sent me into a state of emotional panic,” she added, saying, “I didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time.”

Richardson also apologized to her family, friends, and her sponsors, saying, “I greatly apologize if I let you guys down, and I did.”

Under USADA rules, an athlete who tests positive for marijuana can be suspended from competition for up to two years. Athletes who demonstrate that the use of marijuana occurred outside of competition and not for performance-enhancing purposes are subject to a three-month suspension, which can be reduced to one month if the competitor completes a drug counseling program.

Cannabis Advocates Call For Change

In addition to the 2021 revision of the anti-doping policy on THC, in 2017 the WADA amended its regulations to remove CBD from the list of banned substances. But cannabis advocates argue that the changes don’t go far enough. Rachael Rapinoe, the CEO of Mendi, a CBD brand focused on recovery products for athletes, says that is time for athletic regulating agencies to approve all cannabis formulations, including those that contain THC.

“The use of high-quality cannabis products are healthier, more natural alternative methods of recovery than what is traditionally prescribed and used in sports medicine. I can tell you this from personal experience as a former professional athlete,” Rapinoe, who is the sister of U.S. Olympic soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe, wrote in an email to Cannabis Now. “Cannabis consumption is legal in many states and its recovery uses are recognized by many elite sports organizations, including the Olympics organization with its recent inclusion of CBD for athlete recovery, as it alleviates very real ailments that athletes face including pain, inflammation, and the impact that a high-performance, high-pressure job has on mood and sleep.”

U.S. Olympian Megan Rapinoe

In a statement from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Erik Altieri, the executive director of the cannabis policy reform group, suggested that the decision to ban Richardson from the Olympic Games is unfair.

“Sha’Carri Richardson, like millions of her fellow Americans, turned to cannabis’ therapeutic benefits to help her cope with the tragic loss of her mother,” Altieri said. “To use this as a rationale for denying this athlete, who is otherwise competing at the top of her sport, the ability to represent the United States at the Tokyo Olympics should be an unacceptable outcome in this situation. Let Richardson race.”

Olympic Appearance Still Possible

Although Richardson has been disqualified from competing in Tokyo for the women’s 100-meter competition, she may still be able to race with the U.S.Olympic team in the women’s 4×100-meter relay. U.S.A Track and Field, the sport’s governing body, is responsible for making the decision on Richardson’s participation in that event, according to the New York Times.

Richardson told NBC she is eager to return to the track.

“This is just one game. I’m 21. I’m very young,” Richardson said. “Unlike most, I have plenty of games left in me to compete in and I have plenty of talent that backs me up because everything I do comes from me naturally: No steroids. … After my sanction is up I’ll be back and ready to compete.”

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Olympics Has Set A Reasonable Precedent For Cannabis

Notorious for opposing any sort of substance that may enhance performance, the Olympics has set a reasonable precedent for the use of cannabis by its athletes. In recent years, cannabis has become increasingly popular amongst professional athletes. Its ability to reduce muscle and joint inflammation combined with its ability to improve sleep makes it a […]

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