Pro-Athletes and Cannabis: a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

Pro-Athletes and Cannabis: a Performance-Enhancing Drug?
December 15, 2017 Colleen C

Is marijuana a performance enhancing drug?

A simple question with a complicated answer. Currently, cannabis is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for its performance-enhancing benefits. But momentum towards reconsidering this ban is currently taking place. The main reason behind this movement is the benefits of cannabis as alternative medicine outweigh the potential effect it has as a performance-enhancing drug (PED).

Pro-athletes: public advocacy vs. career-ending risk

Pro-athletes like Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps, Canadian gold-medalist snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, former NFL offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, and mixed martial artist Nick Diaz have all publicly advocated for or admitted to using marijuana.

While slowly growing in numbers, athletes who publicly proclaim cannabis use are still extremely rare. We can assume the main reason being the public stigma surrounding marijuana is still very real, with even a mention of marijuana use putting pro-athletes at risk of losing contracts and endorsements. Especially in the NFL, which has arguably the strictest marijuana enforcement rules in pro-sports. Outspoken advocates like Eugene Monroe are working towards marijuana policy reform in the world of professional football. The retired OT calls for policy change, stating that the cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) is a proven neuroprotector and effective pain management drug. Note CBD provides these medical benefits without the psychoactive effects of THC.

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Studies show specific benefits for athletes

According to the study Therapeutic Benefits of Cannabis: A Patient Survey, patients using cannabis for chronic pain management reported a 64% relative decrease in average pain and 45% reported relief from insomnia. No serious adverse effects were reported. Compared to traditional pain medication like opioids which come with high addictive qualities, cannabis should be seen as a healthier alternative.

It’s no secret that professional athletes suffer from elevated rates of head injuries. The amount of concussions reported within the NFL, for example, is shockingly high, and that’s not including concussions which are undiagnosed or unreported.

Protection against concussions doesn’t have to end with helmets; studies have proven CBD to be neuroprotective. Monroe states on his website that “the United States government holds a patent (U.S. Patent No. 6,630,507) on cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants.” Yet, cannabis is still vilified within pro-sports. Professional athletes like UFC’s Nick Diaz who have tested positive for levels of THC are at risk for potentially career-ending bans.

There’s hope on the horizon. With marijuana becoming more socially accepted there’s a steady increase in the affiliation of pro-cannabis and pro-sports.

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Currently, cannabis is included on the WADA’s Prohibited List. This means that in most arenas, levels of cannabinoids in the bloodstream while competing is prohibited. Rhonda Rousey has gone on record stating that since cannabis isn’t a traditional PED, this should be revoked. The issue, she believes, is a political one and not a question of performance.

The arbitrary reasons why cannabis is “performance enhancing”

The WADA’s decision to include cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug was largely due to how it affected the mental state of the user, not the physical state. They’ve said, besides increasing muscle relaxation and pain reduction for post-workout recovery, cannabis can also “decrease anxiety and tension, resulting in better sport performance under pressure.” The WADA has also stated that cannabis can increase “focus and risk-taking behaviours, allowing athletes to forget bad falls or previous trauma in sport, and push themselves past those fears in competition.”

“We can argue these points are health-enhancing, not performance-enhancing. Relief from pain and anxiety should be a basic right for anyone in any profession.”

Eugene Monroe openly advocates for cannabis use as alternative medicine, especially as a safer, non-addictive alternative to prescription opioids. If you consider cannabis as alternative medicine to opioids for pain relief or to treat depression (instead of a PED) then the drug could be seen in the same light that antidepressants, anti-anxiety, and painkillers are. It is a medical treatment for injuries, most notably brain injury and mental health. In the world of pro-sports, where chronic pain and head injuries are abundant, any alternative to potential opioid abuse should be considered. With perception shifting, governing bodies will hopefully soon see marijuana as health-enhancing instead of performance-enhancing.

What are your thoughts on cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug and its use in professional sports? Let us know in the comments below:

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