Anti-Doping & Cannabis

Although scientists and specialists are still at war over whether cannabis can be classed as an ergogenic (performance-enhancing) or ergolytic (performance-impairing) substance, cannabis is nonetheless banned from use in sporting competition by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). But should this be the case?

As suggested by researchers in a review published in the clinical journal of sports medicine: ‘self-reported cannabis use among NCAA athletes was predominantly for social and recreational purposes (61%); only 0.6% stated that the use of cannabis was primarily for performance-enhancing purposes’. They concluded that ‘cannabis use among athletes may therefore be more related to social norms of behaviour rather than to enhance performance’.

When you couple this revelation with the belief of many professionals that cannabis only indirectly affects performance due to its aiding of athlete’s sleep time and recovery, with sports stars generally restricting themselves to low doses of cannabis in any case, you may start to wonder why such a seemingly inconsequential substance is being limited at all.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, some specialists believe that cannabis can help sports players improve their focus and recover following injuries due to the plant’s cannabinoids’ supposed analgesic effects upon the endocannabinoid system. With these two competing viewpoints from the experts then, it is interesting to look at what WADA surmises about cannabis use in sport.

What does WADA have to say about this?

The World Anti-Doping Agency is an independent international agency that is involved in the monitoring of the World Anti-Doping Code. They also create the ‘The Prohibited List’, which annually dictates what substances and methods are prohibited either at all times or in competition only.

To be added to their list of prohibited substances, a substance has to meet the following criteria: a) it is a health risk for athletes b) it could potentially enhance performance and c) it goes against the spirit of sport. Considering these criteria then, WADA has banned the use of cannabis in competition, citing that:

· Athletes who smoke during sporting competition may endanger themselves and their competitors due to poor decision making and slower reaction times

· Considering existing current human and animal studies, the drug may be performance enhancing for certain athletes and those in particular sports disciplines

· The use of drugs that may have detrimental impacts upon health and may unfairly enhance performance does not align with the expected behaviour of athletes who serve as role models for children and young people worldwide

Interestingly though, in 2019 WADA removed cannabidiol (CBD) from their prohibited list. Natural cannabinoids and synthetic cannabinoids including THC remain prohibited in competition however.

Despite WADA’s continued prohibition of cannabis use in sports, as cannabis becomes increasingly legalised across the globe, certain sports are starting to become more relaxed about their athletes’ use of the drug. For instance, the NBA’s current policy states that players found to be over the THC threshold will only be put on a temporary suspension (of 5 games) after they’ve gone against the policy three times. Sports like major league baseball, the NHL and USA Basketball BIG3 are also said to be more progressive in their stance on cannabis use by their players.

While WADA’s 2019 removal of CBD from its prohibited list seems indicative of further plans to slacken restrictions on cannabis generally, a lack of research on cannabis use in the sporting realm means it may be years before clear-cut and conclusive evidence about cannabis’ status as a performance-enhancing drug is found. With cannabis becoming less stigmatised globally, perhaps unafraid athletes’ testimonies will catalyse further interest and research in this area as well.

What do you think about cannabis use in sports? Should it be allowed? Or is it an unfair advantage? Let us know in the comments below.

For more information on this topic, take a look at our evidence base, a ground-breaking systematic review of the history of research in this area and a global first-of-its-kind searchable database for clinical referencing.

The rest of our comprehensive resources on medical cannabis are available on our website. We urge anyone considering the use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.

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