This past summer cannabis in sports suddenly became a topic of discussion when U.S. Track and Field star Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for THC following her 100-meter qualifying victory and was subsequently suspended from competing at the Olympic games. This came as a huge blow to Richardson’s many fans and raised the question: Why is cannabis a banned substance in the Olympics in the first place?

The controversy puts fans of sports who also happen to be medical cannabis advocates in a tight spot. If the drug is as effective at treating pain and improving recovery time as many advocates say it is, then it appears that the anti-doping agencies are justified for their positions and marijuana should be banned in the same fashion as any other performance-enhancing drug.

But many marijuana advocacy groups have come out in support of removing the ban on pot in all sports, and a number of megastar athletes are publicly backing the sentiment.

WADA Reviews Policy

Following the international headlines and public outcry over Richardson’s suspension, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) executive committee announced it would be reviewing cannabis’ status under its current policy. In a press release, the agency said it had ordered scientific review of the drug to begin no later than next year. The drug will remain on the banned list in the meantime.

WADA regulates drug testing and policy enforcement for the International Olympic Committee. It was created to protect athletes and the integrity of the games from performance-enhancing drugs. The current WADA policy bans the use of all natural and synthetic cannabinoids with an exception for CBD. According to the agency’s website, a substance has to meet at least two of three criteria to make it onto the list of prohibited substances: It must have the potential to enhance sport performance; it represents a potential health risk to the athlete; or it “violates the spirit of sport.”

In 2011 WADA published a report in Sports Medicine that said the agency had banned cannabis for meeting all three criteria. Using cannabis purportedly “violated the spirit of sport,” because “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.”

Performance Enhancer?

The report cited previous studies on cannabis, pointing out that it had been found to decrease coordination, distort spatial perception and alter perception and awareness of the passage of time. Studies have also shown that using marijuana did not increase vital capacity or grip strength and reduced maximal exercise performance in cyclists. “However,” wrote the WADA researchers, “in this study vasodilation and bronchodilation were increased, suggesting that cannabis could also improve oxygenation to the tissues.” The authors also claim that athletes report “significant positive effects in sports, such as improvement of vision for goalkeepers and muscle relaxation.”

Health Risks?

The report covers potential adverse reactions of smoking pot that are mentioned above, like loss of coordination and time estimation, but the authors also say the drug has the potential for harming athletes by “leading to poor decision making” and increasing the probability of accidents. The WADA also warns that cannabis can cause disorientation “and sometimes psychosis, panic reactions and paranoia.” Additionally, the researchers said loss of vigilance and short-term memory loss could potentially affect athletes negatively.

The Big Four

Interestingly enough, U.S. sports organizations appear to be moving at a much faster pace to become more progressive in their attitudes toward cannabis use.

In April the NFL announced that it would be opening a random drug testing window from April 20 to Aug. 9—just in time for players to take part in 4/20 festivities without worrying about being penalized. The league said it would be moving away from harsh penalties for pot use in the future and seek treatment options instead. In June NFL and the players’ union announced they were teaming up to award up to $1 million in grants for research into the therapeutic efficacy of cannabis and other alternatives to opioids for player pain management.

Last month the NBA announced it would not be randomly testing players for THC in the coming season. The association will continue to drug test for performance enhancing drugs like human growth hormone and steroids as well as illicit “drugs of abuse” like methamphetamine and cocaine, but has decided to extend a testing freeze that began during the initial COVID-19 hiatus.

In March 2020 MLB said it would no longer ban the use of cannabis, but players would not be allowed to be sponsored by pot companies. The memo containing the news also warned that players were not to come to practice or games while stoned. The league reportedly went as far as teaming up with product testers to look for CBD products that could be stocked in team locker rooms.

The NHL led the pack however—it removed its ban on cannabis in early 2019. If a player tested positive for the drug, they weren’t punished, but were advised about substance abuse treatment options and allowed to go on their way. These players wouldn’t be required to take any action at all.

All Eyes on WADA

So now that most professional U.S. athletes have nothing to worry about, all eyes are on WADA’s reform considerations in 2022 and the report it will release. This report may have major ramifications not only for the world of sports medicine, but for medicine in general. If the report finds that cannabis has performance enhancing aspects, then medical cannabis advocates will be vindicated. If not, then athletes will be free to use the drug. It’s a win-win situation.

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