The question of cannabis’ place on the banned substance list for athletes is once again in the spotlight, after 21-year-old American 100m sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was banned from competing at this year’s Olympic Games in Japan, having tested positive for marijuana following her winning trial time of 10.86 seconds.
Richardson, who admitted to smoking marijuana to help her cope after the death of her biological mother, received a one-month suspension from athletics. This ruling meant that the gold medal favourite could not compete in her 100m sprint at the Tokyo games later this month. In an additional blow, Richardson, whose ban will be completed before the 4x100m relay event, was not selected by the United States Olympic Committee and will therefore be unable to showcase her impressive speed in the team event.
Reactions to Richardson’s ban have typically fallen into one of two conflicting camps – “the athlete knows the rules, was tested, and was caught,” and “why is cannabis classed as a performance-enhancing drug?”
Indeed, some have even pointed to the drug’s changing legal status, its legality in the state of Oregon (where the Olympic trial race was run), and that, of all the available drugs which may enhance athletic performance, surely marijuana would be one of the last substances an athlete would use?
The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA)
American athletes are drug tested by The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) – an organisation that covers track and field athletics, as well as combat sports such as mixed martial arts. On cannabis use, the official USADA website states the following – “For something to be added to the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) Prohibited List, it must meet two of the three inclusion criteria: a) It poses a health risk to athletes, b) It has the potential to enhance performance, and c) It violates the spirit of sport.”[i]
A 2011 WADA-published paper outlines its reasoning behind why cannabinoids meet these criteria, stating:
- “Athletes who smoke cannabis in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk-taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision-making.”
- Based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance-enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.”
- “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.”[ii]
Interestingly, WADA gave exemption to CBD in 2019, and USADA states that it will consider a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) application that would allow medical marijuana use for neuropathic pain if approved. USADA’s website offers a commendable amount of transparency on the issue of therapeutic use exemption, including a downloadable PDF that outlines the criteria to be met to gain exemption.
This includes the necessary application window of 30 days before the competition and further information from the athlete and their physician, and any additional information about a medical examination or imaging studies to verify the athlete’s medical need for a TUE[iii].
Performance Enhancing Effects of Marijuana
USADA and WADA have made their stance clear, but what does science say? A 2018 article, Cannabis and the Health and Performance of the Elite Athlete, published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine reports, “there is a perception among some athletes that cannabis use may have beneficial effects” but “….there is no direct evidence of performance-enhancing effects in athletes.” It does, however, report that “the use of cannabis to facilitate relaxation may be indirectly perceived to improve performance”[iv].
Scottish Parkour practitioner Lee Anthony, a former Puma-sponsored athlete with 19 years of freerunning experience, is a daily cannabis user. He told Seedsman: “Smoking weed definitely helps me get dialed in. I’ve always found that it loosens off my body, helps me focus, and assists my mind-muscle connection. On the recovery side, it helps relax the body and eliminates tension – both physical and mental – which can only be positive in healing the body.”
In a recent landmark decision, The Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC), which oversees Boxing and MMA, voted unanimously on July 7th to no longer discipline fighters for cannabis use. The new policy is not retroactive to cases that have yet to be adjudicated and signals a massive change in thinking from the same board that handed UFC star, Nick Diaz a five-year ban and a fine of $165,000 in 2015. Commenting on the vote, NSAC chairman Stephen J Cloobeck said, “I believe it’s warranted and merited since it is legal in this state.” The NSAC has opted to continue testing for cannabis until the end of 2021 for data collection purposes but will not punish any fighter who tests positive[v].
As laws continue to relax on cannabis use worldwide, there is still work to be done in sport. The NSAC decision is huge and sparks hope that other organisations will follow suit. But as WADA still deems marijuana use as something that violates the sport’s spirit, it seems some minds may require more than scientific findings to change.[i]https://usada.org/spirit-of-sport/education/six-things-know-about-cannabidiol [ii]https://www.usada.org/athletes/substances/marijuana-faq [iii]https://www.usada.org/about/world-anti-doping-code/wada-international-standard-for-therapeutic-use-exemptions-tues [iv]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6116792/#_ffn_sectitle [v]https://reuters.com/lifesyle/sports/nevada-will-not-discipline-fighters-marijuana-use-2021-07-07