Cannabis & Sports: A cognitive chronicle

August 2, 2021
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So what’s the extent of legalized cannabis even in the states where it's legal?

We’ve all been missing US sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson at the Tokyo Olympics because she tested positive for marijuana during the US Track & Field trials. Reputedly, the sixth-fastest woman in history, with a best-ever time for the 100m of 10.72, the Texas sprinter, who was expected to be a major contender at the Olympics, was banned by the US Anti-Doping Agency for cannabis use. Although the 30-day suspension technically ended during the Tokyo games, US Athletics chose not to include her on the team. Her disqualification has reignited a long debate over marijuana prohibition in Olympic sports. If the item meets two of the three given criteria, it is eligible for the ban.

Criteria 1: They harm the health of the athlete
Criteria 2: They are performance-enhancing
Criteria 3: They are against the spirit of sport

Well, it is the second criteria that is most disputed and have been a major reason for most debate around use of weed among athletes and in sports.

"The only way it's a performance-enhancing drug is if there's a big [expletive] Hershey bar at the end of the run," joked the late comedian Robin Williams.
In 2011, Wada defended the ban on cannabis in a paper published in the journal Sports Medicine. Citing a study on marijuana's ability to reduce anxiety, Wada found cannabis could help athletes "better perform under pressure and to alleviate the stress experienced before and during competition".

But those findings aren't enough to warrant concluding marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug, argues Alain Steve Comtois, director of the department of sports science at the University of Quebec at Montreal, also one of the authors of a 2021 Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.
"You have to take the big picture," he tells the BBC. "Yes anxiety levels go down, but in terms of actual physiological data, it shows that performance is reduced."
In fact, most research finds that marijuana hinders the physiological responses necessary for high performance, by raising blood pressure and decreasing strength and balance.

Now about Wada rule and the spirit of sports…
After several high-profile doping scandals at the Olympics, in 1999, Wada aimed to end doping in sports around the globe, and in order to do so, it came up with a list of banned substances in 2004, and marijuana made it to the list. More precisely, because marijuana was banned in almost every country at that point in time and so, "They didn't want to get in social respectability trouble," says John Hoberman, a cultural historian who researches the history of anti-doping at the University of Texas-Austin.
Its status as an illicit drug was cited by Wada in the 2011 paper as one of the reasons why marijuana offended the "spirit of sport" (criteria 3) and was "not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world".

The rule has led to reprimands for not only Ms. Richardson but also dozens of other athletes.
To mention a few...

In 2009, Michael Phelps was banned from competition for three months, and lost his Kellogg's sponsorship, after photos of him smoking marijuana were leaked online.
US sprinter John Capel was banned for two years after testing positive for the second time in 2006.
Before Wada created the prohibited drug list, the International Olympic Committee tried to take away Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati's gold medal because he tested positive.
It was returned after a court ruled there was no official rule against it - the IOC banned it two months later.

But recently, there seems to be a shift of society’s attitude and mindset towards marijuana use. Uruguay was the first to make it legal to buy and sell marijuana for recreational use in 2013, with Canada following suit in 2018. Countries like South Africa, Australia, Spain, and the Netherlands, have decriminalized it to some extent. In the US, it is illegal federally, but it is legal in about a third of states - including the state of Oregon where Ms. Richardson tested positive.

There has also been an increasing acceptance of cannabis use for medical purposes, with many countries, including the UK, allowing medical marijuana.
In fact, in 2019, Wada removed cannabidiol (CBD), a component of cannabis, from the banned list, even though the chemical remains illegal in some countries, like Japan, where the Olympics are hosted this year.

Ms. Richardson's suspension prompted US President Joe Biden to question the current law, although he fell short of saying it should be overturned, prompting rumors the White House could step in.
"Rules are the rules. Everybody knows what the rules are going in," Biden told reporters Saturday in Michigan. "Whether they should remain that way, whether that should remain the rule, is a different issue."
Even the United States Anti-doping Agency, the American authority that enforces Wada's rules, said "it's time to revisit the issue."

But until there’s an amendment in the book of rules, athletes will have to keep away from the use of marijuana or else face the consequences as advised by authorities.

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