Does Marijuana Give Athletes an Unfair Advantage?
A year ago
As cannabis continues to enter the mainstream, more and more athletes are talking openly about their cannabis use, or deciding to incorporate it into their training regimens because of its various benefits.
This increase in use (or increase in talking about use) begs the question: Is cannabis a performance-enhancing drug (PED)? The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which is responsible for coordinating the fight against drugs in sports across 600 organizations internationally, seems to think so—even if many athletes who use cannabis don’t.
What’s a Performance-Enhancing Drug?
2018 is the first year WADA removed cannabidiol (CBD) from its list of banned substances. However, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and the other cannabinoids in marijuana are still “prohibited in-competition.” This means that athletes are normally tested for these substances before a game, fight or meet—but not in the months leading up to or after competition.
According to WADA and its subsidiary the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a substance is considered performance enhancing and thus banned in some capacity if it meets at least two of the following criteria:
- It has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance.
- It represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete.
- It violates the spirit of sport.
On its website, USADA says that cannabinoids meet all three of these criteria. In terms of enhancement, it cites cannabis’s ability to relax muscles, reduce pain after workouts, decrease anxiety and fear, as well as its tendency to increase focus. It also cites studies that suggest cannabis has negative effects on respiratory, cardiac and mental health. And lastly, it contends that cannabis violates the spirit of sport because its illegal status doesn’t exhibit good moral or ethical judgement.
To many of those who are familiar with cannabis, USADA’s reasoning behind the last two criteria comes off as dated—especially when we consider the number of athletes (and successful athletes, at that) who say that cannabis helps them recover from injuries, thus contributing to their overall health.
Consider NFL players, many of whom are in the spotlight, and who must endure injuries that often stick with them for the rest of their lives.
“I would say there's a clear correlation between my cannabis consumption and my football career,” says Eben Britton, an NFL veteran who used cannabis during his career in spite of its contraband status. “I played the offensive line—I was knocking heads. I was one of the guys dealing with those sub-concussive hits 80, 90, 100 times a day, five days a week.”
Eben currently advocates for cannabis use in the league because he believes that cannabis’s neuroprotective properties can better the life of NFL players, who are at a higher risk of head trauma than athletes in other sports.
“So to me, looking back on my career, looking back at my own personal cannabis use, I started consuming more cannabis the more football I played,” he says. “And I believe that was my body intuitively needing to be supported, basically thirsting for some sort of healing, some sort of cellular nourishment which came only from cannabis.”
Whether cannabis should be included on WADA’s list at all has been debated among governing sports organizations for years. And now, with cannabis’s positive effects in the spotlight, perhaps it’s time to reopen that door for discussion.
Cannabis’s Effects Are Similar to That of Caffeine, Which Isn’t Banned
In many ways, cannabis’s effects and the ways its used among athletes bears more resemblance to nutritional supplements than to drugs that are explicitly used to enhance physical performance.
“PED to me means you are gaining an unfair advantage over your competitors by using a substance that does something for you—that makes you have an unfair competitive advantage,” he says.
Jim says there are obvious PEDs like steroids, which enable athletes to build muscle faster than normal.
“But you have to look at cannabis differently—it’s a natural herb. The easiest analogy I can use is caffeine,” he says.
Caffeine, often dubbed the most widely used “drug” in the world, is legal in every sports league. While caffeine works differently than cannabis does in the body, it’s similar to marijuana in terms of the advantages it offers for performance enhancement—and yet it’s allowed in all leagues. Studies show that caffeine can increase airflow to the lungs and widen blood vessels, leading to increased blood flow.
Cannabis can do the same thing, according to the article Cannabis in Sport, which is often cited by USADA and others who believe that cannabis is a PED. Moreover, studies show that caffeine can improve mood, mental alertness and provide an energy boost—just like cannabis can.
“Caffeine is legal in every league. People can drink Red Bull, take powders—do whatever they want,” says Jim. “I don’t like caffeine—it makes me shaky and not perform well, but am I to say, ‘Hey, that's a PED’? I think if you use that direct analogy, marijuana falls into the same category [as caffeine].”
Cannabis’s Illegal Status Keeps the Stigma Alive
So why is cannabis banned, while caffeine isn’t? There are numerous reasons, but cannabis’s illegal status in most parts of the world is likely the main one, and this prohibition has far-reaching consequences: It greatly affects our ability to study the plant and determine what—if any—detrimental effects on athlete’s health exist, and it promotes a negative stigma against the plant, causing it to violate “the spirit of sport.”
Given the growing popularity of cannabis, it’d be in the best interest of both governments and governing sports bodies to promote research on this topic so that athletes who use it in their training regimens can be better informed.
What do you think? Should cannabis qualify as a performance-enhancing drug? Share your thoughts below.
Photo credit: Rob Wingate