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Cannabis: a performance-enhancing drug?

Ross Rebagliati, whose Olympic gold medal for snowboarding was temporarily taken from him after cannabis was found in his system. Photo: Roland Tanglao
Ross Rebagliati, whose Olympic gold medal for snowboarding was temporarily taken from him after cannabis was found in his system. Photo: Roland Tanglao

The world’s leading agency in the fight against doping in sport regards cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug, but its Canadian branch, the Canadian Center for Ethics in Sports (CCES), doesn’t. On Tuesday 5 June 2018 in Calgary, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will stage its first athletes’ forum to discuss developments in the struggle against doping. One matter up for discussion is the list of prohibited drugs, and Canada is on the verge of legalising recreational cannabis use.

International athletes who test positive for cannabis can be penalised. Paul Melia, the president of the CCES, commented that his organisation has always believed cannabis shouldn’t be forbidden for athletes because there’s insufficient scientific evidence of its badness. Whether cannabis should be disallowed is one matter that will be tackled at the forum.

Why WADA banned cannabis

In 1998, Canadian Ross Rebagliati won a gold medal for the newly-recognised sport of snowboarding at that year’s winter Olympics in Japan, was stripped of the medal because there was a teeny amount of cannabis in his system and then had the medal returned after an official appeal. He spent one night in a cell in Japan. He claimed that he tested positive because although he hadn’t partaken of cannabis, people around him had. WADA’s threshold for a positive test was 15 nanograms per millitre while Rebagliati scored 17.8 ng/ml. The limit is now 150 ng/ml.

Does cannabis enhance athletic performance?

Rebagliati now works in the medical marijuana industry and believes cannabis shouldn’t be banned despite its being “absolutely” performance-enhancing. He grieves that “performance-enhancing” is a stigmatised term, since “The clothing you wear … and everything you do, including brushing your teeth, is performance-enhancing.”

Elite triathlete Clifford Drusinsky also believes cannabis is performance-enhancing: “When I get high, I train smarter and focus on form.”

It’s the view of WADA that a drug is performance-enhancing if it fulfils two out of three criteria: it enhances sport performance, it’s a health risk to the athlete, or it violates the spirit of the sport. Melia holds that cannabis is thought of as performance-enhancing because it removes fear, which could assist a high diver or downhill skier, and it increases creativity.

Yes, it does. No, it doesn’t.

Cannabis might boost performance in skiers, with ski-coach-turned journalist Gordy Megroz trying cannabis after many friends, including skiers, told him the drug improved their performance. He wrote in Outside Magazine that he “felt invincible and proceeded to attack the steepest lines without fear.” Cannabis certainly reduces anxiety. WADA agrees with this and also believes it increases airflow to the lungs.

When Megroz was tested under the supervision of a physiologist, he lasted significantly longer on a treadmill and was in less pain after a heavy squat session; however, when mountain biking, he was “much better” but misjudged a turn and rode off the trail. He cited a 1977 paper that found decreased motor control in six veteran potheads; this might be critical in serious sports where a wrong turn can prove calamitous. It’s well-known that cannabis has an anti-inflammatory effect, which could increase a person’s pain threshold. But it also decreases motivation in many folk.

Scientific research is limited because cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, a fact that usually comes up when speaking of legalisation.

But with the world anti-doping code being the consensus of 70 international sport-governing organisations, change won’t be coming soon. Robin Williams once jested, “The only way it’s a performance-enhancing drug is if there’s a big fucking Hershey bar at the end of the run.”

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