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Why is marijuana prohibited in sports?

After U.S. sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson was suspended for marijuana use, many are asking why the drug is banned in the first place

Earlier this month, track and field made front-page news everywhere when U.S. 100m champion Sha’Carri Richardson was given a 30-day suspension after testing positive for THC, a substance found in marijuana, at the U.S. Olympic trials. The length of her suspension meant that Richardson, a gold medal favourite in Tokyo, would miss the Olympic Games. Fans everywhere were outraged, and several voices in the track and field world demanded to know why the drug, which is now legal in several countries and states, is still on the WADA banned-in-competition list. Today, we’re diving into that question.

RELATED: Sha’Carri Richardson will not be in Tokyo

Why is marijuana not allowed in sports?

Before we answer this question, there is one important distinction to make: athletes are not prohibited from using marijuana at all times. They can use the drug, just not during their competitive season. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the time it takes for marijuana and other cannabinoids to be completely eliminated from an athlete’s body depends on the specific cannabinoid they use, how much and how frequently they use it, their weight, overall metabolism, liver function, general health and whether they’re on any other medications. If an athlete uses it regularly, it can take weeks to months to fully clear from their system, which is why WADA suggests any athletes who wish to use the drug should talk with their doctor about their clearance time.

So why is marijuana banned in sports? In 2011, WADA published a paper in the journal Sports Medicine outlining the reasons marijuana and other cannabinoids are not allowed in sports. For a substance to be added to the prohibited list, it must meet two of the following three criteria:

  1. It poses a health risk to athletes.
  2. It has the potential to enhance performance.
  3. It violates the “spirit of sport.”

According to WADA’s research, marijuana and other cannabinoids check all three boxes, for the following reasons:

  1. “Athletes who smoke cannabis or Spice in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk-taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.”
  2. “Based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance-enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.”
  3. “Use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world”.

RELATED: Athletes petition to allow cannabis in sport

Let’s break that down a little:

Potential health risk

According to WADA, marijuana and cannabinoids can have a negative influence on co-ordination, movement and time estimation and can impair essential technical skills that may also increase the probability of accidents and injuries, particularly when handling equipment or when high velocities are involved (a.k.a. when athletes are running really fast). Although impairment is generally believed to last no more than eight hours, WADA cites some research to show that effects can sometimes last up to 24 hours. The agency also highlighted that newer products can be even more potent and pose even greater health risks. These products, they note, are typically sold under street names like Spice, K2 and Fake Marijuana.

Performance enhancement

WADA’s report highlights one study specifically, in which cannabis was shown to increase vasodilation and bronchodilation, suggesting that cannabis could improve oxygenation to the body’s tissues and thus enhance performance. Other studies included in the paper suggest the drug can help with muscle relaxation and can reduce anxiety and stress, which can also benefit athletic performance. The agency has also interviewed several athletes across multiple sports who have used cannabis, who claimed it improved their concentration and reduced pain. Others have claimed that smoking marijuana before competition helped improve their focus.

“In conclusion,” the authors stated, “although much more scientific information is needed, based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance-enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.”

The spirit of sport

This category is, as WADA admits, the most difficult to define. According to the agency, the spirit of sport is a collection of essential values, including ethics, fair play and honesty, health, excellence in performance, character and education, fun and joy, teamwork, dedication and commitment, respect for rules and laws, respect for self and other participants, courage, community and solidarity. At the time WADA’s paper was released, cannabis was still illegal in most of the world, and the agency argues the “the consumption of cannabis and other illegal drugs contradicts fundamental aspects of the spirit of sport criterion.”

Fast-forward 10 years to 2021, and marijuana has been legalized in many countries, including Canada and several U.S. states. It is important to note that Richardson, who is of legal age, used the drug in Oregon (a state where it is legal), and thus did not do anything wrong as far as the general law is concerned.

RELATED: How using a cannabis-related product can aid in recovery

The bottom line

There are multiple reasons why cannabis and marijuana are banned by WADA for in-competition use. In recent weeks and months, critics are arguing the rules surrounding use of the drug for athletes need to be changed, and newer research on the effects of the drug needs to be taken into consideration. As of now, WADA has maintained its stance on cannabinoids, but as marijuana continues to be legalized in other regions of the world and the conversations surrounding the drug continue, this is going to become an even controversial issue. It is difficult to say what will happen now, but we may see some changes in the future.