Cannabis is In Sports, Now What?


As of 2018, CBD is a permitted substance by the World Doping Agency (WADA), but THC remains banned. Discussing whether or not it should be used in sport continues to be worthwhile discussion, but the reality is that it hasentered sport. So we are in this grey zone of figuring out: How can we expand approval?

As the debate rages on concerning cannabis in sports, many athletes are excited about the possibility of openly and continually managing their pain, anxiety, and sleep disorders with full spectrum cannabis. And amidst the opioid epidemic, more of us support them in their efforts.

The policies will change as a matter of time and inertia. The writing is on the wall. The discussion needs to start maturing. Public opinion has shifted, and the research to mitigate the concerns about health risks will continue to mount.

The case of prohibition in sports basically boils down to classifications by WADA and the federal government. Each athletic association and corollary regulatory body has its own take on how these standards should be executed, but WADA sets the standard. The federal issue is for another time and place, but in this context: it mainly serves as a barrier to do clinical research.

Advocates are winning the battle of public opinion now, but at the end of the day, the entire body of research says: “Cannabis has great therapeutic potential and some risks to health. We should do more research.” An entire industry is excited by the possibilities, but we can also learn from the mistakes of other product histories.

Doping agencies could be a major driving factor to getting the research that we need to capitalize on an opportunity that no one fully understands yet. The questions we should be asking are: What are the most beneficial ways to use cannabinoids for health? What should the shape of regulations be? What forms produce the most consistent results? For what conditions is it most beneficial?

The Risk of Backlash

The risk of approaching the conversation by claiming presupposed benefits could be severe. And all benefits marketing teams are touting are presupposed by clinical standards. Sometimes, I have fears of marketing teams making 1928 Lucky Strike style claims. It hasn’t happened yet. I don’t think it will. But I’m concerned it could.

Interestingly, nicotine has been shown to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease, reduce stress, and to increase cognitive functionality in schizophrenics. Can you imagine a “medical tobacco” company marketing the idea, “Smoke cigarettes, it will help your Parkinson’s disease” or “Schizophrenia”?

It’s a hard sell, and with good reason. These are the thoughts that I have when watching shows like Bong Apetit. To be fair, Bong Apetitdoes a fantastic job of presenting new products and the uses of cannabis. It’s entertaining and very well done. But, people are getting rippedon screen. That’s not medical. It perfectly captures the excitement and risks of the industry, contradictions included.

Advocates could lose their momentum in public trust when clinical studies confirm smoking produces carcinogens within our lungs, and that certain strains will have adverse effects for select groups of people. Or that certain combinations negatively impact some forms of other medications. Those studies are coming. Some states are already regulating dosage of THC in concentrates and edibles. We need to get out ahead of these problems so cannabis can be appropriately and safely used in sports for the athletes and viewers alike.

A solution in product design

With over half of NFL players having used opioids to manage their pain and a high abuse rate, it’s an exciting proposition to have quality cannabis products available for pain management. Athletes are leading the way, and understandably so. The potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis are immense.

As a regulated market matures, we should throw everything modern science has at understanding how cannabis can best serve society. We can understand and shape those benefits. We have an opportunity to take some of the highest performing individuals in the world and design products that can serve specific needs under arduous conditions.

What if we can circumnavigate the health risks, while maximizing the health benefits in regards to pain management? What if we can identify and standardize cannabinoid profiles in products that have clinically proven results? What if we can perfect delivery method? What if we start thinking of cannabis as a nutritional supplement? Or a nootropic?

It’s difficult to imagine that medical cannabis in 5, 10 or 20 years will be smoked. If these contradictions aren’t taken into account, we are more likely to see more regulatory paradoxes like we have in Canada: where recreational cannabis use is legal federally, but is still restrictedwithin internationally recognized sports organizations.

If we are going to expand approval, we have to accept the campaign to win public opinion is winding down. Now, research and design come into question. It will take an infrastructure to answer the question. Sure, part of the answer is demanding that gatekeepers get rid of the locks and chains. But, if we hold the standard of an evidence-based regulation from doping agencies, they can help target the real benefits and risks. This way to potentials of medical cannabis mightbe realized with minimal backlash.


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National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Stoecker, William V et al. “Marijuana Use in the Era of Changing Cannabis Laws: What Are the Risks? Who is Most at Risk?”  Missouri medicine vol. 115,5 (2018): 398-404.

Vyas, Marianne Beare et al. “The use of cannabis in response to the opioid crisis: A review of the literature”. Nursing Outlook, Volume 66 , Issue 1 , 56 – 65

Ware, Mark A et al. “Cannabis and the Health and Performance of the Elite Athlete”  Clinical journal of sport medicine : official journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine vol. 28,5 (2018): 480-484.

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