Cannabis as a performance-boosting drug? Some researchers say “no”

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Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

Amid growing legalization, more athletes are turning to cannabis as a way of enhancing performance, but what does the science say? In 2020, two independent papers looked at research into the plant’s performance-improving potential. Similar conclusions were met by both papers: the existing evidence is not sufficient to support claims.

Despite being legal in 18 states across the United States, cannabis is still featured on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances. However, athletic cannabis consumption paints a different picture when compared with the athletic consumption of other illegal drugs the plant’s use is tolerated on any day except race day.

This rule from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is influenced by the fact that the plant has been proven to harbor therapeutic potential. Moreover, cannabis is a non-addictive and natural substance that can be cultivated to produce a broad spectrum of strains; some psychoactive and some non-psychoactive.

Nonetheless, one study published in the National Library of Medicine hypothesized that cannabis “does not act as a sport performance enhancing agent as raised by popular beliefs.” With claims like this, industry opponents are becoming increasingly concerned about a looming White House meeting that could ease rules for athletes who test positive for cannabis.

Top sprinter’s win is invalidated following positive cannabis test

Athletes who test positive for cannabis, such as young American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, could soon be abiding by much more flexible rules. The potential rule changes are being deliberated over after 21-year-old Richardson was disqualified from making her Olympic debut in Tokyo this month. 

Following an impressive June win at the U.S. track and field trials, Richardson tested positive for cannabis. Based on her positive cannabis drug test result, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has imposed a one-month suspension on Richardson’s Olympic activities. 

In an effort to ease restrictions on cannabis use among athletes, the White House is reportedly arranging a meeting with the WADA. The argument surrounding Richardson’s case is heating up. After all, cannabis is legal in Oregon, which is where the Olympic trials were held; it was during the Olympic trials that the athlete mourned the death of her mother.

Any drug that “enhances performance,” “goes against the spirit of the sport” or “poses a health risk” is forbidden by the WADA. Therefore, any athlete who tests positive for one of the WADA’s prohibited substances is in violation of the rules and will be penalized. 

But is it fair that cannabis should fall under those criteria? 

Numerous studies have already delved into the subject. For example, this study concluded that cannabis may be effectively used to relieve pain and minimize concussion-related symptoms. However, researchers noted that the subject deserves further investigation. 

Other studies have demonstrated how cannabis can be successfully employed to treat pain based on its ability to influence CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS).

Relaxed sports organization rules for cannabis use extend beyond the Olympics

Athletes are allowed to use cannabis outside of competition but if they test positive, they could face a lengthy two-year suspension. Richardson was suspended for one month, since she was able to prove that her cannabis consumption habits are unrelated to her sporting career.

Rules on cannabis use have been eased by various other sporting organizations. For example, Major League Baseball eliminated cannabis from its banned substances list in 2019, before the NBA stopped conducting random cannabis drug testing in 2020. 

Some other recently-imposed amendments to athletic cannabis consumption include the NFL’s penalty amendment that toned down penalties from a suspension to a fine, and the UFC’s removal of cannabis consumption under the organization’s Anti-Doping Policy list of violations.