Cannabis and Pro Sports: We Need a Better Approach

Athletes have ever right to the cannabis plant yet face inconsistent standards and hypocrisy.
Athletes have ever right to the cannabis plant yet face inconsistent standards and hypocrisy. /

Cannabis and fitness go hand in hand for many consumers, and professional athletes have become more outspoken about their use of the plant. 

But while some athletes have been championed for their cannabis use, others have had to pay a steep price for it. 

This continues to happen today, most recently at the Tokyo Summer 2021 Olympics, when professional sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from the games after testing positive for cannabis in a drug test.

The suspension left many people outraged for several reasons: the inconsistency in dealing with weed, the negative reputation that follows people put in Richardson’s situation, and society’s insistence to keep comparing cannabis to addictive, dangerous, performance-enhancing drugs. 

Cannabis and Sports: A Consistently Inconsistent Approach

Even though Richardson claims she used cannabis during the Olympic trials in Oregon, where adult-use of the plant is fully legal, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency refused to budge in their decision. 

Meanwhile, U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe was able to compete and score two goals in the Olympic bronze metal match, despite the fact that she’s been incredibly outspoken (and entrepreneurial) about her own cannabis use, specifically CBD. 

This issue doesn’t begin and end with Richardson and Rapinoe – a recent article lists off more Olympians, including hurdler Devon Allen, softballer Haylie McCleney, and WNBA champion Sue Bird, who will serve as team ambassadors for Rapinoe’s CBD-infused products.

These confusing discrepancies have left cannabis consumers, athletes, and sports viewers frustrated with society’s inconsistent approach to the plant, which feels almost as hypocritical as when it was first demonized back in the early 20th century. 

It’s also a blatant slap in the face to Richardson, who was given no understanding at all. 

Even though THC has no evidence of acting anything at all like a steroid or growth hormone – in fact, it’s more likely to do the exact opposite – cannabis is coupled with these sort of performance-enhancing drugs, and this outdated viewpoint desperately needs to change. 

The World Anti-Doping Agency removed CBD from its list of prohibited substances in September 2017, but the rest of the plant remains banned. This leaves too much room for things to get confusing, and they certainly have.

Professional athletes are regularly encouraged to take powerful prescription drugs, like opiates, to manage pain or injuries. 

Although opiates can be helpful to patients in need, they also have a history of being highly-addictive and sometimes dangerous, while cannabis is a natural plant that has little to no effect on athletic performance. Despite these facts, one is normalized while the other is stigmatized, and it simply doesn’t make any sense.

Things get even murkier for international athletes. Even if U.S. athletes are allowed to utilize CBD-only cannabis products, those rules can easily change when they cross the border into another country, like Japan, whose government is strictly anti-cannabis. 

These inconsistencies in dealing with cannabis will continue to confuse athletes everywhere until a uniform approach is taken. 

There’s simply no denying how useful cannabis can be when it’s coupled with fitness, and to allow athletes to consume dangerous opioids while banning them from a beneficial plant that can help improve their overall health, is baffling. 

The Benefits of Using Cannabis as an Athlete

As Rapinoe and camp have unabashedly reported, cannabis provides a variety of benefits to athletes that helps them stay at the top of their game without synthetically enhancing it.

“CBD has become part of my all-natural recovery system that I use throughout the day to help with pain and inflammation, stabilize my mood and get better sleep. Instead of taking Advil or other pain management meds, I've almost exclusively substituted with Mendi CBD products,” Rapinoe told in an interview

“I use them right after training: pop in a gummy or gel capsule for pain and to calm me down, then another gummy in the afternoon to relax, then the night tincture right before bed for better sleep. It's truly part of my entire day.”

It’s not just Olympians who are utilizing cannabis to their daily benefit – in fact, the overwhelming majority of professional athletes in the U.S. smoke weed, according to new player estimates

"Shoot, the coaches do it," former Dallas Cowboy Shaun Smith said in an interview. "Personnel, people upstairs do it. Quarterbacks that do it. Captains, your leaders of the team, smoke as much as I do—might even smoke more than me."

The pressure is on the sports industry to start examining cannabis from a new lens, especially considering how beneficial it has been for so many athletes.

  • Cannabis is known for reducing inflammation. Anti-inflammation is one of the most notable effects cannabis seems to have on many consumers. For athletes, this can make a huge difference during recovery times. 

Inflammation occurs often in sports, whether it be from a painful injury, a minor sprain, or anything in between. 

If cannabis is something that can help speed along that process, athletes might benefit greatly from adding the plant into their routine. 

  • Cannabis may help alleviate symptoms of pain or discomfort. This goes hand in hand with cannabis’s anti-inflammatory properties, which play a huge role in pain reduction. 

However, some cannabinoids (THC in particular) also seem to help temporarily relieve pains or aches by reducing pain perception and signaling to the brain. This helps dull the sensation, making pain much more tolerable to deal with.

It’s no secret that athletes experience injury quite often, and are likely to compete through pain at some point in their career. If cannabis can help alleviate this struggle, it could be a literal game-changer for athletes of all levels. 

  • Cannabis may help improve sleeping patterns. Another well-known benefit that many consumers experience from cannabis is a good night’s sleep

This is hugely important for athletes, who typically require more sleep than the average person due to the constant exertion their bodies are facing. 

Many consumers utilize cannabis to help them sleep through the night, and athletes can certainly benefit from this type of aid – especially if they have trouble doing so on their own. 

  • Cannabis may act as an appetite stimulant. Just as athletes tend to need more sleep than the average person, they also tend to require a much higher daily caloric intake to stay healthy and fit. 

While some people have no issue putting away those extra calories, some struggle with appetite stimulation, and cannabis is known for helping with that

This is a great example of why allowing CBD and no other aspects of the cannabis plant to be consumed by athletes makes no sense for professional sports: while THC is known for that appetite stimulation, CBD actually seems to have the opposite effect on consumers. 

Athletes utilizing cannabis for appetite stimulation could be very beneficial, but as long as only parts of the plant are permissible, they risk a failed drug test and unnecessary damage to their careers. 

  • Cannabis may ease the symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. Mental health is just as important (if not even more so) for the overall performance and wellness of an athlete, which has become clearer than ever with recent events.

Researchers have noted that cannabis seems to have antidepressant, anxiolytic properties. This can make a huge difference for athletes, who for too long have been taught to suppress their own emotional needs in favor of winning.

Athletes are also forced to undergo an immense amount of pressure, which may result in a level of anxiety that hinders their performance, and may even result in injury. 

An athlete’s mental state is vital to their overall performance, and if mindful cannabis consumption can help support a healthy state of mind, it should definitely be accessible to athletes around the world. 

Sports Needs to Take a Uniform Approach to The Plant

The major sports leagues in the U.S. are slowly changing their tune on cannabis, especially with more active athletes expressing their support. Recently, NBA superstar Kevin Durant signed a deal with Weedmaps to help destigmatize cannabis.

Cannabis is still banned in the NBA, but the league is currently not testing players for the substance. Similarly, the NFL has also adjusted their testing policies for cannabis. 

The MLB removed cannabis from their banned substances list in 2019, promising to treat it like alcohol abuse instead of a crime, and the NHL also removed it from their banned substances list.

While cannabis may provide a variety of benefits to athletes, none of these benefits are wildly performance-enhancing, very long-lasting, or riddled with dangerous side effects. 

For all of the good cannabis can potentially do for athletes, it just doesn’t make sense to continue banning it or treating it with fear and derision. Or, even worse, why pick and choose which parts of the plant athletes are allowed to consume?

When one Olympic athlete is suspended from the international games for using the “wrong part” of the plant while another is revered for her use of the “good part,” we have a major problem. 

Professional sports need to take a uniform approach to cannabis: one that does not discriminate against certain athletes for their use while congratulating others for being outspoken. 

Although a lot of this new perspective still needs to be considered, understood, and implemented, it’s clear that minds are slowly beginning to change on the subject. Meanwhile it is cannabis stigma and knowledge gaps which continue to hinder progress.

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