A look at evolving attitudes toward marijuana in the professional sports arena 

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Colorado Springs sits squarely in the intersection of marijuana and sport.
It’s home to both the United States Olympic Committee and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and situated in a state that’s leading the country in drug policy reform. Evolving attitudes toward cannabis have led sports agencies that regulate its use to reconsider their stance — somewhat.

The debate over elite athletes’ marijuana use often comes back to pain management, which, in the world of sports, is traditionally handled with pharmaceuticals like Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet. These highly addictive, opiate-based medications may not be the best way to deal with pain, inflammation and muscle control, but the sports industry is far from embracing cannabis as the nonaddictive alternative. That may have something to do with drug companies lobbying hard against the rise of medical marijuana.

Another question is what athletes are allowed to do off the clock. While some performance enhancers and recreational drugs are banned both in and out of competition, high-profile stories like Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps smoking marijuana at a party in 2009 have raised questions about what substances athletes should be allowed to use in their free time.

In 2004, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) created a comprehensive document called the “Prohibited List.” Banned substances and methods are spelled out for athletes’ and coaches’ consideration. According to the WADA website, decisions about what is on the list are determined by committee and based on “current scientific and medical knowledge and the input from all stakeholders during an annual consultation process.”

In the most recent list, cannabinoids fall under the prohibited in-competition section, meaning use isn’t banned outside competition like it is for anabolic agents or peptide hormones.

WADA’s current urinary threshold level for cannabis metabolite Carboxy-THC is 150ng/mL, meaning amounts lower than 150ng/mL are not reported. (For reference, the Colorado Department of Transportation considers 5ng/mL of THC to be the threshold for driving under the influence.)

Prior to 2013, a year after Colorado and Washington passed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, the WADA threshold was only 15ng/mL. At the time, a spokesperson for WADA justified raising the threshold so in-competition use would be detected, but not use “during the days and weeks before competition.”

Before the limit was raised, marijuana use caused multi-month or multi-year suspensions for athletes. In 1998, before the Prohibited List existed, Ross Rebagliati almost lost his Olympic gold medal for snowboarding after testing positive for marijuana. Between 2003 and 2008, 21 American athletes received every- thing from a public warning to a two-year suspension with a loss of results and a two-year ineligibility for using cannabis-related substances, according to the American subset of WADA’s database. Of the 147 USADA sanctions between 2008 and 2013, 28 were cannabis-related.

Since then, the only American sanction according to the USADA database is Nate Diaz, a UFC fighter who openly smoked a vape pen containing CBD oil during a press conference after a fight in 2016. He received a public warning and stated that he thought he was outside of “in-competition” hours during the press conference.

In order for any substance or method to make it onto the WADA Prohibited List, it has to meet two of the following three criteria: It has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance; it represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete; it violates the spirit of sport.

While those first two can be determined scientifically, the third is subjective. As marijuana use becomes destigmatized and normalized, it threatens the “spirit of sport” less and less. Society is already less concerned with the morality of cannabis, and instead focuses on whether it affects sports performance, and if so, how.

Former Olympic athlete Sally Roberts, a two-time world bronze medalist and three-time national champion in wrestling and the founder of the nonprofit Wrestle Like a Girl, puts it this way: “It seems to be more performance-detracting and it makes no sense to me why athletes would choose to put substances in their body that don’t help them perform.”

Others, apparently, feel differently. Ultra-runners Avery Collins and Jenn Shelton have been open about their use during training, but refrain when it comes to competition. Some professional football players have also been vocal advocates for med- ical marijuana, with the NFL Players Association now formally studying the issue following elections last year that saw even more states legalize. In a video produced by the pro-medical marijuana Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, former NFL football player Kyle Turley spoke about his efforts to get the NFL to permit marijuana use.

“I suffered the consequences of this sport,” he said, leaning on a cane. “What we want is the opportunity to have the choice of an organic treatment for illness and injury that doesn’t come with a side effect of death.”


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