Cannabis in Sports: Their Interesting Relationship After 20 Years of Cannabis Banning

Written By: Ashley Meza  

One of the biggest controversies that involve cannabis is its role in sports. In the past, many would argue that this plant was a performance-enhancing drug when consumed. However, recent research shows that weed is in fact, not performance-enhancing, but affects athletes in different ways, both good and bad. Generally, if you ask an athlete that partakes in cannabis activities if they feel like it’s performance-enhancing, the answer typically is no. It impairs different motor functions and affects every player differently.  

How Cannabis Was Banned In Olympic SportsRoss Rebagliati is known for his use of cannabis in sports

The controversy of the ban of cannabis in athletics started in 1998 when snowboarding made its debut as an officially Olympic sport. Gold-medal winning champion Ross Rebagliati was caught up in controversy after testing positive for THC following his win. Since weed was not officially banned prior to his win, he was able to keep his medal, but it sparked the conversation of the role of weed in different sports and its effects on athletes.

In 1999, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was founded. Five years later, in 2004, the WADA started publishing a yearly list of prohibited substances and methods for athletes, known as The Prohibited List, with cannabis making it to the list every year since. 

Olympic Banning Criteria

The main criteria that fall under the prohibited list include that the substance or method 1) has the potential for enhancing performance 2) risks the athletes’ health and 3) violates the spirit of the sport. Although it has been made aware that cannabis isn’t performance enhancing, the controversy stands still due to the fact the substance is not legal in many places around the globe and athletes are often looked to as role models, making weed grounds for prohibiting under the third listed criteria. 

This means that cannabis has been banned from sports for about 20 years, and in those two decades we have learned a lot more about the plant and its impacts. So now the question stands, should weed still be a substance banned in sports and listed in The Prohibited List? 

The Sha’Carri Richardson Controversy

About 20 years after the 1998 Rebagliati cannabis incident at the Olympics, Sha’Carri Richardson was met with the same controversy after testing positive for THC following her win at the 2019 100-meter race at the U.S. Olympic trials. Under WADA, this meant she was not allowed to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which got pushed to 2021 due to COVID-19).  

However, because of that 20-year difference and the advances that the US has made with the legalization of medical and recreational cannabis, Richardson received an abundance of support from people across the country. The WADA was met with a lot of backlash because of this ban considering that Richardson consumed weed legally and recreationally in legal state, especially since her reasoning for consumption was to cope with the loss of her mother.

Due to this overwhelming support, many requested that WADA review their Prohibited list and reconsider having cannabis listed for international sports, which they have agreed to investigate but have not given any details as too when or what will be changed. The main obstruction in this is that weed, while legal in many regions across the globe, is not legal nor socially accepted in various other places internationally. 

Weed’s Effect on Mental and Physical Performance

Let’s dive into what makes up that controversial decision though, is cannabis a performance enhancing drug? If not, how does it actually impact athletes? 

As an athlete myself and an avid stoner, smoking a bowl or a small preroll before a game actually helps me stay in the zone and not get in my head about my own plays. It also helps me remain calm in frustrating moments on the field. However, it must be in moderation.

I consume just enough to feel a light buzz, to let anxieties go and still be able to run and breath correctly; because let’s face it, smoking too harshly and coughing up a lung doesn’t go hand in hand with running around for an hour. In my personal experience, weed does not enhance my performance. It just helps keep my mind at ease, so I don’t overthink my own mistakes on the field. 

In the book by journalist Josiah Hesse Runner’s High, he explored how athletes have used weed as a way to enjoy their sport more. Part of Hesse’s research is how athletes use weed to suppress the extra unnecessary thoughts in the mind. He states that athletes claim it helps keep them “focused exclusively on the task at hand but delighted to be in it.” He explains how cannabis helps shift the perspective from thinking of the tiredness at hand while running or playing the sport and enhances the fun in the sport.  

“No other activity will stimulate all these different brain regions like play… and in that way, [cannabis] can be a competitive advantage. It has the potential to make you a better athlete, not because it swells your muscles or your heart or your lungs, but because it makes you more playful.” Hesse writes.  

Apart from the potential mental advantages, many athletes (myself included) utilize weed as a way to cope with injuries. This can be in the form of topicals or ingestion through smoking or edibles. Many professional athletes from an array of sports have pushed for cannabis as a potential medical alternative for pain management and injury treatment as opposed to opioids, which are frequently prescribed for these issues.  

The Opinions of Athletes and Major Sports Leagues
Al Harrington

Former NBA player Al Harrington used to believe that weed was a gateway drug to harder drugs. He is now a big advocator for weed in sports, even claiming how about 80% of the NBA already secretly use it for some personal benefit, even stating that some of the best players were regular users. Harrington is the proud founder and owner of Viola Dabs, which is an amazing brand with high quality concentrates.

Sports leagues have been listening to these advocates. The MLB removed weed from its banned substances, the NHL does not discipline users in the league, and the NFL is starting to test out to no longer suspend players who test positive and is limiting testing frequency. The NBA has even suspended random drug testing for weed through the 2023 season.

Weed is still a banned substance in the WADA. As we continue to tread through the laws and limits of cannabis in the world, it seems that there have already been huge dents in the limitations across different sports platforms when it comes to athletes’ cannabis use. Hopefully, one day, as we continue to learn more about the plant, the benefits too athletics will be enough to remove this ban and athletes can utilize cannabis at their own discretion.

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