Cannabis doesn’t enhance performance. So why is it banned in elite sports? | NOVA


At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, snowboarding made its debut as an Olympic sport. No longer relegated to the fringes, snowboarders took to the snow-capped peaks of Mount Yakebitai, and 26-year-old Canadian Ross Rebagliati rose to global fame. But shortly after he won gold in the giant slalom event, a drug test revealed 17.8 nanograms per milliliter of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, in Rebagliati’s system, which he still attributes to secondhand smoke.

“Cannabis back then was seen as being for losers and lazy stoners,” Rebagliati told The New York Times. “The big corporate sponsors didn’t want to sponsor me. I became a source of entertainment, a joke. I went from hero to zero overnight.”

Rebagliati was initially stripped of his medal, but because cannabis had not been officially banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), he was ultimately able to keep the gold. Two months after his failed drug test, the IOC officially banned cannabis due to its illicit status as a social drug.

The politicization of pot 

As the war on drugs was waged on America’s streets, it was also playing out in sports arenas around the world. “We had to draw a lesson from Nagano,” IOC Director General Francois Carrard told the Associated Press in 1998. “The IOC wants to take a stand against a social drug.”

Prince Alexandre de Merode, chairman of the IOC medical commission at the time, added that cannabis should be banned even though it does not act as a performance-enhancer like steroids.

Roger Pielke Jr., an expert in sports governance and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, claims that “the deeper reality was that the Clinton administration’s focus on anti-doping regulations helped serve its domestic policy agenda, which was focused on waging a war on drugs.”

In 1998, the United States pledged an unprecedented $1 million to assist the IOC in its mission to eradicate drugs from elite sports. Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, was adamant that recreational drugs such as cannabis should be just as much of a priority for the international sports community as performance-enhancing drugs. 

“We raise Olympic athletes up on international pedestals for all the world’s children to look up to as role models—it is vital that the message they send is drug-free,” McCaffrey wrote in a 10-page memo to the IOC. “The goal of this whole effort must be to prevent Olympic medals and the Olympic movement from being tarnished by drugs.”

Snowboarder passing slalom flag

Snowboarder Ross Rebagliati at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, where he won gold for Canada in the men’s giant slalom. Image Credit: Mark Sandten/Bongarts/Getty Images

According to Pielke, Rebagliati’s case gave the U.S. government the leverage it needed to lobby U.S. anti-doping leaders to include marijuana on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Prohibited List.

WADA was established in 1999 through a collective initiative led by the IOC, and maintains the World Anti-Doping Code and prohibited list. Its key role is to standardize anti-doping regulations globally for Olympic sports. Director McCaffrey led the U.S. delegation at the first official meeting of WADA, after which “WADA looked far more like the institution the United States and its other international partners called for, than the original IOC-formed WADA” according to a report from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) on the agency’s actions and accomplishments from 1993-2000. The United States is also the largest individual contributor to WADA, which receives half of its funding from the IOC, and half from governments around the world. In 2020, the U.S. pledged over $2.7 million of the $37.4 million WADA budget. 

Despite the U.S. government’s stance on social drugs, the ONDCP acknowledged that the athletic community itself was less concerned about cannabis than about performance-enhancing substances, like anabolic steroids, which can promote tissue growth and muscle generation and shorten recovery time after a workout.  

“In the course of our efforts to put in place an IOC ban on marijuana, athletes and sports officials at all levels—ranging from Olympians to high school coaches to youth athletes—informed ONDCP that they felt that the more urgent drug threat within the sports world was the use of performance enhancing drugs,” the ONDCP report stated. These concerns, the report notes, were “scientifically grounded” by the results of the 1999 Monitoring the Future survey, which concluded that youth steroid use increased roughly 50% over the prior year’s study. 

Why is cannabis banned? 

According to WADA, any substance may be included on its prohibited list if it meets two of three criteria: it has the potential to be performance enhancing, it poses a potential or actual health risk to the athlete, or it violates the “spirit of the sport.”

WADA did not respond to questions from NOVA about the prohibited list or cannabis’s status on the list. But several recent studies investigate whether cannabis has performance-enhancing qualities in athletic competition. A 2020 literature review by researchers not associated with WADA concluded, “there appears to be no reason based on current data to believe that cannabis has any significant ergogenic [performance-enhancing] effect.” An independent 2021 review echoed that conclusion, saying cannabis “does not act as a sport performance enhancing agent as raised by popular beliefs.”

“In no circumstances is (cannabis) ever a performance enhancing substance. It is a net negative in terms of athletic ability and performance,” says Jeff Anderson, a professor of radiology and imaging sciences at the University of Utah who studies how the brain responds to compounds found in cannabis. “On the whole, people under the influence of THC are not able to perform as well on cognitive tests, they have slowed reaction times, decreased executive function, decreased attention.”

Two decades after WADA banned cannabis, U.S. track and field sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson delivered a show-stopping performance at the Olympic trials, followed by an emotional interview in which she said she learned the week before that her birth mother had died. However, Richardson’s dreams of competing at the (delayed) 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo were dashed when she tested positive for THC, renewing a discussion about cannabis’s impact on performance.

Since cannabis was banned, the public perception and legal landscape surrounding its use have changed greatly. While cannabis is illegal at a federal level, medical cannabis is legal in 37 states, and cannabidiol (CBD)—reportedly used by 1 in 7 Americans—is no longer prohibited by WADA. In the court of public opinion, where Rebagliati once found infamy, Richardson found support, and her case left many questioning the science behind cannabis’s prohibited status.  

“Drug testing is yet another tool of the drug war, and it’s a failure,” Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “Sha’Carri’s suspension serves as a cautionary tale and a reminder of how insidious the drug war is in our everyday lives, far beyond the carceral state.” 

Cannabis plants at Glass House Farms

The cannabis plant contains over 400 chemicals, including the cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound, and cannabidiol (CBD). Image Credit: NOVA/GBH

Cannabis in the body

Under the guidelines outlined by WADA, “all natural and synthetic cannabinoids that mimic the effects of THC are prohibited, however CBD is not prohibited.”

A cannabinoid is a compound that—no matter the source—interacts with cannabinoid receptors, which are found in nearly every organ in the human body. THC, for example, affects cannabis users by binding to cannabinoid receptors in and outside the brain, causing cells to behave differently. (The receptors also bind with the body’s natural cannabis-like chemicals, called endocannabinoids.) 

Since the 1998 Winter Olympics, the THC metabolite limit for Olympic athletes has been raised from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 180, purportedly to only detect in-competition use of cannabis. However, the length of time cannabis will stay in a person’s system depends on frequency of use and the amount consumed.

This has to do with the way cannabis is metabolized. When smoked, ingested, or otherwise consumed, cannabinoids are absorbed and retained in many parts of the body, particularly fatty tissue. Eventually, the THC byproducts are released and excreted through urine. However, daily consumers of cannabis accumulate THC faster than it can be removed from the body, reports Lia Tabackman for Insider Health.

“Urine testing is one of the most common drug testing methods,” notes Tabackman. It is also widely used in elite sports. 

According to a 2008 report on drug screening in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, cannabis can be detected in urine for up to three days after a single use. For moderate users (4 times per week), cannabis can still be detected 5 to 7 days after last use. And in heavy daily smokers, it can be detected in urine for up to 30 days or more after they stop.

But when it comes to quantifying behavioral impairment while using cannabis, a National Institute of Justice study led by researchers from RTI International found that measuring THC levels in blood, urine, and oral fluid were not reliable indicators of marijuana intoxication, regardless of how the cannabis was consumed.

“Drug testing does nothing to show current impairment,” Frederique said in a statement.  The [United States Anti-Doping Agency] must undo this archaic, inhumane, and unscientific policy.”

“An actual or potential health risk” 

In addition to prohibiting it, WADA considers THC a substance of abuse, meaning it is “frequently abused in society outside the context of sport.” Cocaine, heroin, and MDMA (ecstasy) are also on this list. 

Some mental health experts have expressed concern over the development of cannabis use disorders, which may lead to increased anxiety or depressive disorders.

“I’m among the group that wishes to see cannabis remain on the prohibited list,” says David McDuff, an addiction, trauma, and sports psychiatrist who has served on the IOC’s Consensus Panel on Mental Health in Elite Athletes.

When McDuff was working at University of Maryland College Park, he says he was shocked by the level of mental health symptoms and disorders within the college athlete population, and that the number of athletes using cannabis on a regular basis jumped across a number of sports.

“I was referred to the substance misuse cases and many of them had comorbid anxiety or depressive disorders along with their cannabis use disorder,” says McDuff. “As a clinician, I can’t help but tie its use to reduced performance academically and athletically.”

Other experts say that while the risk of cannabis abuse is real, it is unfair to not apply the same standards to alcohol, which was no longer prohibited as of 2018.

“Alcohol is something that’s far riskier than cannabis use for health, in terms of morbidity and mortality,” Angela Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Scientific American. “I think [cannabis] should be treated like other drugs that people use for various reasons—alcohol, caffeine, nicotine. It should be regulated, but I don’t think it should be banned.”

McDuff points out that if cannabis is considered a substance of abuse, alcohol should be as well. “Alcohol use would surely violate all three of WADA’s criteria.”

In September, WADA announced that it is reviewing cannabis’s status as a prohibited substance, but that it will remain prohibited in competition through 2022. The announcement followed a summer of negative media attention and criticism following Richardson’s suspension.

In response to a request from lawmakers to revisit its policies on cannabis, WADA pointed out that historically, the U.S. has been “one of the most vocal and strong advocates for including cannabinoids on the Prohibited List.”

“WADA has, for more than two decades, faithfully and obediently followed U.S. demands to assist in supporting its domestic drug policy agenda,” says Pielke, “only now to find itself subject to criticism from U.S. policymakers.” 

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