Marijuana use among athletes has yet again stirred discussions since the disqualification of the 21-year-old track star Sha’Carri Richardson from the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo due to a positive marijuana test. Her disqualification has sparked mixed reactions as Richardson explained she used cannabis to deal with the loss of her biological mom and not for a performance boost.
Richardson’s used marijuana in Oregon where it is legal. The Olympics trial was also held in Oregon. While legal in Oregon, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) considers marijuana and other cannabinoids as banned substances in competition. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) shared that they are following the rules imposed by WADA although scientists shared that the pieces of evidence supporting marijuana’s performance are insufficient.
On the contrary, the evidence actually showed how marijuana affects athletic performance negatively.
Why is weed banned in the Olympics?
It is still a wonder why cannabis is banned in the Olympics given that it is legal in many US states and countries. After plenty of doping scandals, WADA focused on ending doping in sports in the world. WADA came up with a list of banned substances in 2004 when cannabis is still stigmatized and illegal in almost all countries in the world. The agency came up with three criteria to ban substances. A substance is prohibited if they meet at least two of the criteria:
- Potentially harm the health of the athlete
- Boost athlete’s performance
- Ruins the “spirit of sport”
When PBS NewsHour asked why cannabis is banned, WADA answered through email that they don’t “publish which criteria each substance or method fulfills when publishing the [banned substance] List.” THC is considered a “substance of abuse” by anti-doping agencies along with heroin, meth, and cocaine.
Prior to the creation of the prohibited substance list, Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati’s gold medal was withdrawn after testing positive. Since there is no official rule against cannabis, the gold medal was returned.
A few of the athletes in the past had faced the consequences of this rule. Michael Phelps was banned from competition after a picture of him smoking from a bong surfaced. US Sprinter John Capel was banned from competing after testing positive in 2006.
Can Cannabis Improve Athletic Performance?
Now that cannabis has become more accessible and becoming the norm, more people are turning to cannabis before or after working out. But can it boost athletic performance? Referring to a study that marijuana can ease anxiety, WADA explained how cannabis can help athletes perform better under pressure and ease the stress before and during competition.
Evidence that points to cannabis’ ability to boost an athlete’s performance is scant. There were a few studies conducted a few years back but it’s been limited as it was challenging to run controlled cannabis studies due to federal limitations.
In a survey conducted, respondents shared that using cannabis before working out made exercise more enjoyable. In that survey, researchers suggested that certain chemicals may be responsible for making the exercise more enjoyable. The rush some people feel when working out could be attributed to the release of endorphins, a feel-good brain chemical in the brain. However, this hypothesis needs further studies as people have still experienced euphoria during a workout even when taking opioid-blocking drugs. Furthermore, the study suggested that cannabis may help users to kick start the feel-good feelings. Nevertheless, there is still no direct evidence connecting cannabis and improved performance.
How long does cannabis last in the body?
Marijuana’s THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces the high sensation is detectable for 90 days in hair, and a month or longer in urine, up to 48 hours in saliva, and up to 36 hours in the blood. Regular marijuana users can have traces of marijuana for 3 months or longer.
Last 2019, WADA removed CBD (cannabidiol) from the banned list amidst it being illegal in some countries. The rules relating to marijuana use have changed with medical and recreational marijuana rules being less restrictive. Athletes can compete with up to 150 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) of marijuana in their system. The change in rules can be confusing considering that WADA still included marijuana on their prohibited substance list. In summary, athletes may have traces of marijuana in their system during competition. They can indulge before or after the Olympic Games but they absolutely cannot enjoy weed during the competition. Athletes can face suspension up to two years and a minimum of 30-day suspension if an athlete “can establish that the use of a substance of abuse was out-of-competition and unrelated to sport performance” and “if the athlete successfully completes a substance abuse program that is approved by USADA.”