Commentary: It’s time to let athletes use cannabis

Banning cannabis is outdated and encourages harmful alternatives

Cannabis remains a prohibited substance for athletes.

While public opinion is generally shifting more favourably towards the use of cannabis, there’s one arena where little progress has been made: sports.

According to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), there are three criteria involved in prohibiting a substance: the potential to enhance performance, posing a risk to an athlete's health, and violating "the spirit of sport." Only two of these criteria must be met to prohibit athletes' use of a substance.

It has been established that consuming cannabis does reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that come with playing high-intensity sports, but so does Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen, neither of which happen to be on the World Anti-Doping Association's (WADA) prohibited list. Ironically, both of these painkillers have more addictive properties than cannabis, and both carry more adverse side-effects

WADA removed Cannabidiolalso known as CBD oila cannabinoid, from the prohibited list in 2018. CBD has been shown to reduce muscle pain while having a moderating effect on anxiety and depression. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, most oils contain at least trace amounts of THC, which results in penalization if certain levels of the chemical are detected. As long as THC remains a banned substance, many athletes may not be able to reap the benefits that different forms of cannabis can offer.

While reducing muscle pains and feelings of anxiety could be considered performance-enhancing, WADA's acceptance of CBD indicates that this isn't one of the two criteria deeming marijuana prohibited.

Although avid use of marijuana could certainly cause adverse side-effects to athletes, like lung damage or harmful effects in brain-development in teens and young adults, these side effects pale in comparison to the potential harms of frequent alcohol consumption—another substance exempt from WADA's ban.

Nearly all substances are harmful to some extent when consumption exceeds moderation. However, occasional use of cannabis poses no greater threat than alcohol.

Referring back to the CCES’s guidelines, violating the spirit of sport is a rather vague criterion, but it’s hard to argue what an athlete does in their own time puts the sport at large in peril. If a player uses a substance to a damaging extent, sports tend to self-regulate this behaviour by cutting players who hinder a team's performance. Institutional meddling in private lifestyle choices is an unreasonable intrusion on athletes’ freedoms.

None of the three criteria for banning a substance appear to coherently apply to cannabis; rather, its continued ban is likely due to the taboo perceptions of the drug at the time these rules were made. It’s time to ditch the misconceptions and give athletes some more autonomy regarding their personal choices. 

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