Drawing the hard line on banned substances

A look at drug control at Queen’s and the question of cannabis control

Marijuana will remain on WADA’s banned substance list despite legalization in Canada.
Marijuana will remain on WADA’s banned substance list despite legalization in Canada.

Spending three hours waiting to have to pee was something Jack* never thought he’d have to do in his life.

“I was sitting around at practice, went to the bathroom, came out and the boys were like, ‘You’re getting drug tested,’” said Jack, a member of the Queen’s varsity football team.

Jack is no stranger to drug tests—neither are his teammates. 

Approximately 12 to 15 members of the football team are randomly tested at various points of the year, some multiple times, he said. For him, the test came after experiencing a recent injury, which made him feel confused. Nonetheless, he complied with the drug testing officer.

“He sat with me at lunch for an hour and a half, he followed me to my therapy and then I finally could [urinate].”

Jack’s anecdote isn’t an anomaly for many varsity athletes across Canada. It’s considered the price of admission to fair and equitable sport.

According to an annual statistics report by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), Canada’s not-for-profit governing body for enforcing fair play and drug-free sport, 5,317 doping control tests were administered to Canadian athletes over the past year. 

While the CCES controls doping programs for numerous athletic governing bodies in the country such as Athletics Canada, U Sports—the Canadian university sport’s governing body—is one of the largest that the organization works with.

In 2017, eight U Sports athletes were caught violating the banned substance laws defined by the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of outlawed substances.

The CCES drug control program runs on one key element: surprise.

Its role in different sports varies as well. Football, which drives in a large portion of consumer and commercial interest for U Sports, undergoes painstaking procedures to ensure athletes are clean. However, other sports have fewer resources put towards drug control.

“Usually it’s only two [drug tests per race],” second-year cross country runner Matt Flood told The Journal. “They’ll predetermine which positions they’ll test and it’s usually two positions within the top five.”

Once the predetermined athlete is selected, the practice remains all the same. Competitions end and doping control officers chaperone the athlete, always keeping them in sight until a sufficient urine sample can be produced. This is done in large part to ensure athletes don’t swap their urine for a clean urine sample or attempt to dilute their urine by drinking water. Control officers are also required to watch the athlete urinate.

“You’re sitting there and the guy’s watching you do it,” Jack said.

Despite the CCES’ efforts, Jack said doping is an issue in leagues that aren’t sanctioned by the doping control program.

“At the end of high school, nearly half of my team was on [steroids],” Jack said, adding many of his former teammates went on to play university football. 

While he believes all of them have stopped doping, he said steroids played a part in paving the way toward university football. Though Jack disclosed he’s never touched a performance-enhancing drug (PED), he completely understands these athletes’ perspectives.

“Given how badly I wanted to succeed … I was like, ‘What else can I do to succeed?’” Jack said. The question, he added, doesn’t have an easy answer for players. 

“A lot of [my high school teammates] were like 5’8” playing running back. If he goes to university … what is he? What can help him grow?”

A growing concern among athletes is how a banned substance can sneak into their bloodstream without their knowing. While some drugs are now labelled as threshold substances—meaning an athlete needs a certain amount of the substance in their bloodstream to get labelled as an abuse—Queen’s varsity athletes are prohibited from consuming certain over-the-counter medications.

“We’re not allowed to take Advil Cold and Sinus,” Jack said. “If you have a steroid cream that goes on your skin … that’s on you to know.”

The doping control program in Canada is hardly a joke. In 2010, nine University of Waterloo football players were caught for anti-doping violations. The program was shut down for the season and, despite reinstating in 2011, had difficulties after many of its clean players transferred.

Marijuana remains banned substance

Announced earlier this summer, Canada’s legalization of marijuana is leaving no impact on WADA’s banned substance list. Since the agency’s inception in 1999, it’s kept consistent with one universal banned substance list. As such, U Sports substance regulations remain unaffected by legalization. 

The CCES and WADA have, however, made changes to protect its athletes from easily testing positive for cannabis. 

Cannabis was recently labelled a threshold drug by WADA. 

Previous to the changes in regulation, athletes with a concentration of 15 nanograms per millilitre in their urine or bloodstream would be sanctioned. Now, an athlete must have 150 nanograms per millilitre in their system to test positive for cannabis.

While marijuana has largely been acknowledged to not be performance enhancing, the issue of its use in sport remains contentious.

“The consensus opinion from all those experts including the stakeholders of all the countries around the world, many countries feel much more strongly about cannabis,” Paul Melia, President and CEO of the CCES, said in an interview with The Journal. “They see it as a gateway to harder drugs.”

Football head coach Pat Sheahan is of similar mind to the drug. He said he doesn’t see its benefits in sport.

“I’m certainly not a proponent of athletes having their blood full of THC,” Sheahan said. “I don’t see how it enhances your athletics but, by the same token, it is a drug.”

Of the nine banned-substance sanctions made across U Sports in 2017, four were for cannabis violations—with each athlete receiving a two-month suspension.

Melia said U Sports wishes to be code-compliant with WADA because numerous varsity athletes compete internationally—some even at the Olympic level. 

In order to compete abroad, these athletes must adhere to WADA’s substance policy. But with the legalization of marijuana in Canada, the issue is becoming more contentious—and ambiguous.

“The list committee uses three criteria: is it harmful for the athletes’ health, is it performance enhancing, or is it contrary to the spirit of sport?” Melia said, acknowledging it’s not easy to argue that marijuana fits into any of those categories. “That third criteria is a bit ambiguous for sure.”

In order to clarify any confusion around the subject, all U Sports athletes are required to complete a short online course on drug control in order to be eligible to compete.

In the offseason, athletes aren’t subjected to drug tests and the use of marijuana is considered permissible by the CCES’ banned substance policy.

Recently, many professional athletes have been vocal supporters of marijuana as not only harmless, but a helpful substance in mitigating pain—especially in contact sports. They tout it as a healthier and less addictive substance than painkillers like codeine or morphine. 

In sports such as hockey and football—where contact is at the forefront—addiction to painkillers has become an issue, especially to retired athletes who’ve tried to alleviate aches and pains with the drugs.

For those wishing to get marijuana off WADA’s banned substance list, they’re likely to be met with difficulty. 

Certain leagues who are unaffiliated with WADA, such as the Canadian Football League, don’t test for marijuana. But with numerous countries unwilling to budge on decriminalization, it’s removal from the list is unlikely. 

However unlikely, though, Melia said the CCES is open to negotiating with WADA.

“[The policy] is not necessarily intended to address athletes who compete at a lower level. That’s probably the case for more varsity athletes in most sports,” Melia said. “If there’s willingness on the part of WADA to do something in this area [we’ll discuss it], but I don’t know if that’s likely at all.”

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