Cannabis in sports is a loaded, but relevant, topic. Although it lacks empirical evidence, the argument against marijuana reform in sports is often emotionally charged. As a result, stigma is emboldened and reform stagnates.
As members of the cannabis community, the onus is on us to help change the culture. The first crucial step in doing so is learning about the issues that stall marijuana reform and perpetuate stigma in sports.
Here is your guide to fighting against the stigma of cannabis in sports.
The Political — Not Scientific — Origins of the Debate
The modern athlete is a machine. Rigorous training and nutrition programs paired with cutting-edge technology ensure athletes perform at their best. Additionally, stringent supplement protocols keep them safe and out of trouble with governing bodies, like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the NCAA.
Normally, when an organization bans a substance ㅡ like anabolic steroids, harmful stimulants, or narcotics ㅡ an array of authoritative research supports the ban. However, the ban on cannabis is far from normal.
Rather than being based on cold, hard science, the issue of marijuana and marijuana reform in sports is largely political.
Comprehensive research on elite athletes’ cannabis use doesn’t exist, but some former professionals estimate upwards of 80% of ex-NFL and NBA players regularly use cannabis. In fact, research suggests the use of THC and CBD can enhance sleep, reduce anxiety, and generally improve well-being. So what’s the problem?
Stigma Surrounding Marijuana Reform
The issue of marijuana reform doesn’t stem from any harm cannabis can cause. Nor does it come from any unfair ergogenic benefits it provides. No, the real problem with marijuana in sports is stigma.
For decades, marijuana and those who use it have been demonized. The utter hatred that accompanies cannabis has created an ideological rift that makes marijuana reform seem nearly impossible. This stigma doesn’t just harm the industry, though; it harms athletes, too.
The widespread — albeit uneducated — perception of athletes who smoke is that they’re just potheads who do it to get high. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Elite athletes are beasts of human beings, and most of what they do is deliberate. Cannabis is often used to wind down and improve sleep, thus boosting recovery. It can also be used to cope with the chest-crushing pressure athletes face on a daily basis. However, THC remains a banned substance in the eyes of the IOC.
Interestingly, the U.S. championed this ban in the 1990s. Using sports as yet another weapon in the War on Drugs, the United States bullied the IOC into enacting a ban on cannabis under the guise of protecting the youth.
The Double Standard
As always seems to be the case in sports, a double standard exists. Many would like to compare the suspension of would-be Olympian and star sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson to 28-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, but comparing the two proves difficult.
While we are sympathetic to the circumstances, Richardson consumed cannabis during an in-competition period — the only time cannabis is banned. Conversely, the infamous photo of Michael Phelps smoking marijuana was taken three months after the 2008 Olympics when he was not in competition.
The double standard that acts as a barrier to marijuana reform exists not between these two athletes but two methods of pain management: cannabis and opiates. While cannabis, an efficacious method of pain management, is banned by the IOC, highly addictive opiates are freely prescribed.
According to a 2020 study, athletes are at a higher risk of opiate addiction. In fact, opioid use among NFL players was reported to be 52% during their careers. Some research even suggests that cannabis use can reduce the effects of opiate withdrawal!
So not only can marijuana serve as a viable alternative to opiates, but it can also help solve some of the problems they cause. Yet marijuana is still banned. How does that make any sense at all?
Pushing for Marijuana Reform in Sports
As of right now, the road ahead seems to involve more research. Conducting more studies, collecting more data, and drawing more conclusions will help our cannabis community build up an irrefutable base of evidence to support marijuana reform.
However, research can’t operate without funding, and a good chunk of research money comes from the federal government. Federal legalization may be necessary to fund significant research into cannabis.
Another less expensive step we can take is to support athletes who use cannabis. So we’d like to give a shout-out to Sha’Carri Richardson: We support you. We believe in you. Most importantly, we’re confident your bravery will inspire true change.
For now, continue the conversation and get involved in the debate. Get in touch with us to discuss being a guest on our podcast.