UFC welterweight contender Nate Diaz is a longtime promoter of cannabis reform in sports. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
CANNABIS

The Ridiculous Policy Keeping Cannabis Stigma Alive in Sports

Despite reforms, why do so many still care so much about marijuana in sports that we’re willing to die on the hill of “CBD good, THC bad?”

The world of sports — but particularly the Olympics, NFL, and NBA — are known to experience their fair share of controversy stemming from marijuana use by athletes. But why? For years, we’ve accepted or even glorified it within music culture thanks to artists like Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa. We’ve even done it in politics — remember Bill Clinton’s infamous “I didn’t inhale” quotation?

It hits like a joke now, but back in 1992, it was the stuff of fascination.

But the psychoactive component of cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), tends to be considered the offender in the sporting conversation. Meanwhile, Cannabidiol (CBD) products have enjoyed explosive popularity in athletic programs, with adherents celebrating their recovery and anti-inflammatory properties.

This begs two questions: Does THC have some kind of inherently negative effect on athletes that justifies its taboo status? By comparison, does CBD supremacy stand up to any real scrutiny?

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We’ve all heard news over the years of football players or a wide range of college athletes getting suspended or fined for a failed marijuana test. At the pro level, the NBA, NFL, and MLB have relaxed punishments for positive marijuana tests, but players can still be fined tens of thousands of dollars and find themselves forced into intervention programs.

Not all sports organizations have evolved past the ridiculous need for suspensions, however. This summer alone, the sanction of top-tier athletes like Sha’Carri Richardson illustrated just how far we still have to go.

Years ago, bans like Richardson’s were unnecessary. Now, they’re a farce — and they expose a meaningless distinction that far too many leagues and regulatory bodies continue to draw.

The State of CBD vs. THC in Sports

In a nutshell, CBD, aka cannabidiol, is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid that has no psychoactive properties, and THC, aka tetrahydrocannabinol, is the opposite. Under the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) World Anti-Doping Code (WADA), marijuana and cannabinoids are both substances prohibited in sports competitions.

“Unless an athlete has an approved Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), the use of substances when they are prohibited in sport may lead to an anti-doping rule violation and sanction,” the code says.

That might sound reasonable from one perspective. But critically, the measures these governing bodies require before a TUE is granted are significant. The case of mixed martial artist Elias Theodorou, who uses cannabis to ease symptoms of bilateral neuropathy, is an unavoidable example:

Under WADA’s 2021 Prohibited List, THC is still classified as a Substance of Abuse — the same category that contains cocaine and heroin.

In placing THC on that restricted list, WADA considered the following:

  1. “Athletes who smoke cannabis or Spice [synthetic marijuana] 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.”

With each passing day, these rules become not just increasingly obsolete and discriminatory, but counterproductive to countless athletes’ recovery and wellness missions, as it forces many to turn to potentially harmful, addictive options like opioid painkillers.

Stopping the Stigma

When considering the ways in which THC actually affects an athlete, the distance between the stigma surrounding cannabis versus the actual reality is laid bare.

The bigger issue here is not the difference between CBD and THC or how any individual league or organization treats one versus the other. Rather, it’s how the reputation of cannabis has evolved from a broad right-and-wrong proposition to a narrower one.

In this new paradigm, CBD is “medical” and accepted, while THC remains “a drug” and dings the reputation of an athlete. But how could this be a straight-faced position among regulators, or any cross-section of the general public?

It’s like declaring granny smith apples good and honey crisp apples bad. It’s not underwritten by any relevant point of fact. It’s as unfair as it is arbitrary.

It’s almost as if no one from WADA has ever taken an edible or smoked a Backwoods.

Ultimately, all these matters still down to subjective judgments shaped by public reputations that are themselves shaped by deeply ingrained cultural attitudes. Overwhelming public opinion can’t change the minds of USADA and WADA by itself. but it’s a necessary step in dismantling the true culprit: the misconceptions and prejudices regarding cannabis that persist across culture and history.

The controversy that has shrouded the cannabis discussion in the US and around the world has lessened in recent years, but an uphill battle still remains as it relates to workplace regulations of all stripes — the “CBD good, THC bad” concept sheds more light on how the generational marijuana stigma is deeper-rooted than just in sports.

If WADA wants to ban marijuana as a whole, so be it. They’ll be forced to live with the backlash. But allowing CBD and other non-psychoactive cannbinoids while still classifying THC as a Substance of Abuse only blurs the line more between what’s most important in the world of sports:

The athletes themselves or outdated notions of the so-called integrity of the game. 

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