Testing Athletes for Pot
How the Legalization of Marijuana is Changing Anti-Doping Codes
As a 27-year-old female wrestler, Stephany Lee’s dreams of Olympic Gold in the 72 kilogram weight class were shattered when she was informed by USA Wrestling that she would be suspended from the team for a year and not allowed to compete in London.
Her offense? Testing positive for marijuana metabolites for a joint she’d smoked weeks before.
Another US Olympian, Nick Delpopolo, the #1 US athlete in Judo at 73 kg, was booted for a positive marijuana test. In professional combat sports, many boxers and mixed martial artists have also suffered for their marijuana use. Recently, boxer Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., was fined $900,000 and UFC fighter Pat Healy surrendered $130,000 of prize money, both over positive marijuana tests.
“Right now, I just cannot believe that a performance-enhancing drug and marijuana can be treated the same,” UFC’s Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner said in an article for USA Today, referring to the punishments for marijuana that can equal or exceed the punishments for excessive testosterone, blood doping, and anabolic steroids.
The head of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), Dana White, is also critical of the patchwork of state athletic commissions that govern combat sports treating marijuana like performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). “Forget about PEDs,” White told a press conference in Las Vegas. “If we get into this random testing you guys are talking about, you know how many guys would probably test positive for marijuana? It would probably be off the charts.” White estimated that 400 of his 475 athletes were smoking pot sometimes.
Marijuana’s ability to relax the mind, ease pain, and increase flexibility are cited by some athletic commissions to justify its testing as a PED. However, the lawyer who headed up the first international efforts to standardize athletic drug testing, Dick Pound, points to public-relations pressure from the US as the reason marijuana was first included in anti-doping codes. “From a sports perspective, I was rather ambivalent (toward marijuana),” Pound said at a May meeting of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). “As we morphed into WADA, the USA was very keen to have it included.”
WADA at that spring meeting raised its threshold for marijuana metabolites in urine from 15 nanograms to 150 nanograms. The reason for the increase was to increase the likelihood that someone failing the marijuana test wasn’t getting caught for recreational use or second-hand exposure. Unmentioned in the reports on the proceedings was whether legalization of recreational use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington informed that decision to raise the standard.
Dick Pound’s assertion that the US fights its propaganda battle against marijuana by severely punishing athletes who use it is bolstered by another anti-doping agency, the NCAA, which regulates college athletics in America. While WADA is raising the international standard by ten times from 15ng to 150ng, the NCAA is reducing its standard from 15ng to 5ng.
The NCAA’s Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline admits “With regard to marijuana’s impact on performance, the [members of the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports] universally agreed that marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug.” And yet, Hainline continues, “a positive test results in a one-year penalty, similar to a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic-androgenic steroids.” The justification for treating pot like steroids is simply, “we do not believe that student-athletes should be ingesting marijuana.”
In professional sports, the National Basketball Association changed its drug testing policy a couple of years ago to no longer test for marijuana use in the off-season, presumably because they wanted there to be at least five eligible players left for each team to suit up. Charles Oakley, an NBA veteran, once opined that 60 percent of the NBA players used marijuana and other reports since tend to suggest he was underestimating.
Pro athletes using drugs is nothing new. But with the marijuana use in the 2010s, many athletes are using it to recover from intense training and provide other medicinal benefits.
Science is showing that cannabidiol (CBD) in cannabis has potent neuroprotective properties. In 1998, researchers at the National Institutes of Mental Health found that natural cannabinoids protected against the effects of head traumas like concussion – something of great interest to a football or hockey player. Cannabis has also been found to stave off the effects of neurodegeneration, like we find in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS, and ALS patients – something of great interest to a boxer or mixed-martial artist. One wonders how much more functional the great Muhammad Ali would be today if cannabis medicine had been legal and utilized against his concussion-induced Parkinson’s disease?
Furthermore, so many athletes are using addictive painkillers that cannabis should be the first choice for pain relief. Former NFL tight end Dan Johnson claimed he was “taking about a thousand Vicodins a month.” Yet even in over one-third of the US states that recognize medical use of marijuana and the two states where recreational use is legal, athletes at all levels are penalized and suspended for choosing this safer, natural alternative.