Is marijuana a performance enhancing drug?
There has been recent outrage after world renown sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from the U.S.A Track and Field Olympic Team following a rules violation after Sha’Carri tested positive for marijuana during the Olympic Trials. People all across the globe are angered at the idea that marijuana is considered a performance enhancing drug, especially after years of propaganda suggesting just the opposite.
It’s a far cry from the “couch-potato” mentality that has been leading the stereotypes of cannabis users for almost a century. So, how could marijuana and athletes be used in the same breath today? The answer lies in part due to the education and normalization in today's culture proving cannabis has far more power than just fueling stoners with the giggles and munchies.
Cannabis has never been considered a performance enhancing drug and in fact studies have actually shown that it can ever so slightly decrease performance when used during competition. So if cannabis hasn’t been shown to help performance, why in Sam Hill is it a banned substance according to the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA)? This agency was founded in 1999 to help control the use of drugs as a competitive edge in sports. With the backlash received after leaving Sha’Carri, one of USA’s most dominant women athletes, off of the Tokyo Olympics, the WADA released a statement stating they would be reviewing their stance on the cannabis plant. A statement about as meaningful as “thoughts and prayers” for gun victims. Too little too late for Sha’Carri Richardson.
How does Cannabis help with athletic performance?
More and more athletes are speaking out about their use of cannabis as a training tool. Endurance athletes report using cannabis before training to help break up the monotony of hours on end repetitive motions for runners and cyclists.
In a 2019 survey, asking 1,161 runners, cyclists, and triathletes, 70% surveyed reported using cannabis to alleviate muscle pain, and soreness in conjunction with their exercise routines. 60% also reported it helped them calm down. Usage ranged from smoking, tinctures, edibles, and topical lotions.
Athletes in high risk sports report using cannabis as a recovery tool to aid in relieving strains on muscles and the body after tough workouts and competitions. Science is backing them up on the effectiveness of using cannabis for healing.
CBD is an analgesic that is non-psychoactive and increasingly becoming more popular for athletes turning to cannabis but wanting to stay away from THC. This can help reduce pain both during and after a workout. Cannabis can also act as a bronchodilator which essentially helps boost oxygen flow through the body. The more efficiently our oxygen flows the better our bodies can recover from strenuous activity.
Taking a “Higher” Road on Cannabis
In the past several years, the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL have taken a harder look at the data and as a result no longer drug test their players for marijuana. This has proven to be a big step forward for athletes as it wasn’t that long ago that Ricky Williams was suspended for the entire 2006 NFL season after having failed multiple drug tests. He always maintained his usage was for therapeutic reasons but no one was willing to listen to Ricky just 15 years ago. In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, Ricky Williams told writer Greg Bishop that he would not have won the Heisman trophy in 1998 without using cannabis. Williams also boldly stated had the NFL had the same stance they have today on cannabis he would have been a Hall of Fame running back. Personally, I believe he is right. Ricky Williams was ahead of his time and a true casualty in the NFL due to the failed war against drugs. A war rooted deep in racism. A war that continues to exponentially impact communities of color over their white counterparts.
Many retired NFL players and other professional contact sport athletes have really taken to using cannabis after their careers to curb addiction treatments from opioids and other pharmaceutical drugs often prescribed to them during and after their playing days. Cannabis has the ability to provide a safer and more natural relief option from chronic pains and neurodegenerative issues caused over the span of a player's career. Former NFL bad boy Kyle Turley has also been at the forefront of being a voice for former athletes who struggled with drugs. Following his NFL career, Kyle found his way to cannabis to get himself healthy.
A Runner’s High
One of the many appeals endurance runners mention is the “runners high” that occurs after finishing a long run. This “high” is described by many athletes as being similar to smoking marijuana. It’s a brief moment of bliss described as deep euphoria by those who have experienced it. Some runners literally chase this high. This “runner’s high” is caused by Anandamide, a neurotransmitter that is found naturally within our bodies. When we run, the abundance of anandamide increases in our system giving us this feeling of “bliss” or the “runners high”. It works by interacting with our Endocannabinoid System on the CB1 receptors. This is the same receptor that is targeted by delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. No wonder they describe this deep euphoric sensation similar to marijuana usage.
Cannabis and exercise go hand-in-hand because of the way our Endocannabinoid System works so well in balancing our regulatory systems responsible for the pain or bliss we experience.
Athletes Speak Up in Favor of Marijuana
Sha’Carri is not the first athlete to have her Olympic dream turned into a nightmare over marijuana. Michael Phelps, who is the most decorated American Olympian, competed in 5 Olympic games bringing home 28 medals, 23 of which were Gold medals. Phelps almost called an early retirement after catching so much flack over a leaked video on the internet of him smoking out of a water pipe. He lost millions of dollars in sponsors and was placed on suspension from competition. The difference between Phelps and Richardson is Phelps was caught several months after the 2008 Olympic games whereas Richardson tested positive during track and field trials for the 100-meter race.
Athletes across the globe have spoken out in disgust, including Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes who had this to say this about Sha’Carri’s suspension:
“This is so trash man...Let her run.” Patrick Mahomes ll
As much as the needle keeps moving forward on cannabis culture, events like Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension goes to show there's still a long way to go before we start getting it “right”. Cannabis has the potential to take an athlete's health to the next level by offering a natural plant medicine over big pharma pills that come with a laundry list of negative side effects. As we continue to learn more about the full potential of the cannabis sativa L plant, it’s an exciting time to follow the ingenuity of new products and cannabinoid profiles being researched. Cannabinoids are showing the potential to have profound effects on everyone, whether you're a decorated Olympic athlete or a regular mom and dad trying to make it through the work week. We could all stand to benefit from a little cannabis in our lives.