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Legalization won’t change the prohibition of cannabis in varsity sports

By Kristy Koehler, September 28 2018 —

Recreational cannabis will become legal in Canada on Oct. 17. How will this impact varsity athletics? The short answer, according to president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) Paul Melia, is that it won’t.

“We want athletes to remember that they are liable for any prohibited substance that is found in their sample [during testings], including cannabis,” Melia said in a statement. “Legalization in Canada should not be confused with being permitted in sport. After Oct. 17, cannabis will simply be one of the many substances that are legal in Canada but prohibited in sport. It may not be a popular option, but the most effective way for an athlete to avoid a violation for cannabis is to abstain from using it during their athletic career.”

At the 1998 Winter Olympics, Canadian athlete Ross Rebagliati became the first person to win an Olympic gold medal in men’s snowboarding. Following a routine blood test for doping, Rebagliati tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the psychoactive constituent in cannabis. Rebagliati’s medal was revoked on the basis of testing positive for a ‘performance-enhancing’ substance.

For most, it is hard to imagine cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug. The Cheetos-munching, couch-locked stoner trope is hardly consistent with the image of a professional athlete. Rebagliati was eventually given his medal back because cannabis was not actually listed as a banned substance at the time.

Today, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has THC on their prohibited list. The reasons why remain vague and ambiguous — does cannabis actually have performance-enhancing properties for athletes or is it banned based on an archaic stereotype surrounding drug use?

In order to be on WADA’s prohibited list, a substance must satisfy any 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 or it violates the spirit of sport.

Over the course of multiple correspondences with WADA, they repeatedly dodged the question of which two criteria THC satisfies.

Interestingly, cannabidiol (CBD) is no longer listed as a prohibited substance on WADA’s 2018 list. CBD is the part of cannabis commonly used for its therapeutic properties and studies have shown it to be the part of the plant that reduces pain and inflammation. Considering that THC is the psychoactive component commonly associated with making users high, it stands to reason that CBD would be the performance-enhancing part. How, then, does WADA justify removing CBD but not THC?

In an email response, WADA stated: 

“Recent scientific literature shows that synthetic cannabidiol is not a cannabimimetic. Therefore, cannabidiol no longer fulfills two of the three criteria to be considered for inclusion on the list.”

The CCES, while remaining compliant with WADA’s regulations, published their stance in their online Cannabis Education Kit, stating that they do “not view cannabis as particularly performance-enhancing.”

“While cannabis has therapeutic uses, habitual use or abuse presents the potential for harm, especially for younger athletes,” the statement goes on to say.  “Impairment during competition presents a liability to the safety of the athlete and their competitors.”

Rebecca Haines-Saah, an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine, researches youth cannabis and the public health policy implications of legalization. She echoes the safety aspect articulated by the CCES. Athletes should never be impaired, by any substance, when participating in sport, she affirms.

Haines-Saah does acknowledge, however, that the performance-enhancing impacts of cannabis are up for debate.

“It is something that people will use for a variety of conditions,” she said. “I think it’s very, very tricky when the evidence is somewhat limited but people talk about the ways that they feel it improves their quality of life or enhances their academic performance or sport performance. It’s a tricky zone.”

The banning of cannabis in sport raises many questions about whether or not the substance is actually performance-enhancing or just stigmatized — after all, athletes can have a beer after the big game or take certain supplements for pain relief.

“It speaks to the different cultural and regulatory norms we have around different psychoactive substances and narcotics,” Haines-Saah said. “Once you make anything illegal, it’s associated with deviance and crime. For many of us that association has stayed somewhere in our cultural imaginary.”

The conversation is shifting surrounding cannabis use, but a stigma still persists.

“I think we have a real double standard and that is one of the things that we’ll need to get past. Alcohol is really pervasive,” Haines-Saah said, citing the tradition of students completing the graduate program in the Cumming School of Medicine being presented with a bottle of champagne, technically a psychoactive substance. She wonders if, as we progress, students would ever be presented with “a box of pre-rolled cannabis” instead.

Until the smoke clears, athletes are bound to WADA’s anti-doping standards. Athletes coming in to the Dinos program must take a drug education course online that teaches them what to expect when it comes to drug testing and their rights and responsibilities when it comes to using substances.

“It gives them an idea of the process and how important it is to play clean,” said Dinos track and field team head coach Doug Lamont.

Dinos athletes are drug tested, not by the university, but by CCES.

“It’s random,” Lamont said. “They’ll just show up unannounced. Two years ago they showed up at a practice, which is out-of-competition testing.”

Interestingly, THC is only banned “in-competition” as per WADA’s master list, while other drugs are banned year-round. However, there doesn’t seem to be a clear indication of what time-frame exactly constitutes “in-competition.”

CCES literature echoes Melia’s earlier statement — that abstinence is the only way to entirely avoid the possibility of a doping violation.

Canadian snowboarder Rebagliati maintained that the cannabis found in his system was the result of second-hand smoke from a party. Could a varsity athlete be found in violation of doping rules if they too were around pot-smoking friends? It’s unlikely. While banned, cannabis falls under WADA’s threshold substance category, meaning that if the concentration of cannabis in an athlete’s system is less than the threshold set, a doping case will not be pursued.

In 2013, WADA raised the threshold limit to 150 ng/mL — that is, 150 nanograms per millilitre of blood, up from just 15 ng/mL previously. Did the massive jump come because cannabis only enhances performance at certain levels? Or could the change signal that WADA doesn’t actually believe it enhances performance at all? Either way, the change does give athletes a bit of leniency, while still appeasing prohibition-happy politicians and those who seek to vilify the drug.

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