Medical Marijuana for High-Performance Athletes: Truths & Myths Exposed

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It may seem incongruous to speak of medical marijuana and high-performance athletes in the same breath. Cannabis is hardly the image one associates with an athlete, yet medical marijuana is used in all levels of athletics. It’s just not widely talked about. 

Many athletes use different forms of cannabis (either ingested into the body or absorbed by applying on the skin) to help ease anxiety, reduce muscle inflammation, and maintain their weight. 

Higher Yields Consulting Medical Marijuana & High-Performance Athletes

The stigma of marijuana (cannabis) use is still high in many parts of the world, but with the increase in legal marijuana states, public opinion is softening. Recreational and medical marijuana laws differ greatly. So, would it make sense for athletes to be granted legal access to cannabis? That’s my hope, but it’s not that simple. 

Here are the pros and cons of medical marijuana in athletics and my predictions for the future of cannabis in sports.

Pros & Cons of Medical Marijuana for Athletes 

As a competitive bikini bodybuilder, I’ve seen firsthand how much marijuana can help athletes. When I ran track and played soccer in college, I tried using western medicine to heal my injuries and help my anxiety, but nothing worked. 

It wasn’t until I started using marijuana medicinally that I found relief. I was once again able to train and compete in the physically and mentally demanding sports that I loved. My passion for the healing powers of marijuana led me to become a cannabis consultant. 

We’ve made much progress in eliminating the stigma of cannabis in sports, but we still have a long way to go. The path to wider acceptance of cannabis for athletes is similar to how medical marijuana fought for acceptance in health care in previous decades. 

The acceptance of the medical benefits of marijuana took many years to reach. In the 1980s amid the HIV/AIDS crisis, patients found ingesting marijuana to be the only remedy for their pain. 

In the 1990s, cannabis was found to provide relief from the side effects of chemotherapy for cancer treatments, such as nausea and loss of appetite. It also eased their pain, allowing them to rest. As we know, sleep is key to all healing. 

High-performing athletes live with and push through intense physical pain all the time. I know this all too well. I find cannabis helps to reduce lactic acid buildup caused by weight training so I’m not stopped by fatigued muscles. Cannabis also keeps my body lean, which is essential as a bikini bodybuilder.

I know of many athletes who use cannabis to ease the anxiety that often comes with the demands of being in a high-pressure career. Cannabis has 100% been the thing keeping me focused! 

Does Cannabis Use Support an Athlete’s Recovery? 

Is there any truth behind some common beliefs about the health benefits of medical marijuana for athletes? Here are some of the top health claims and their probability of truth: 

Health Benefits Claim                 Probability of Claim                              

Decreases muscle inflammation  High likelihood of truth. According to a 2018 study, “… [cannabis] does decrease inflammation when it’s rubbed on muscles as an ointment or taken orally.”
Reduces chronic pain High likelihood of truth. In a 2019 clinical trial, 79% of respondents said that using cannabis helped to relieve their chronic pain.  
Enhances weight loss Possibly some truth. Studies have shown that, “High amounts of cannabis appear to increase metabolism and reduce energy storage, resulting in a lower BMI.”
Helps cope with stress, anxiety, and depression Only anecdotal evidence of effectiveness. While CBD has shown to improve anxiety and depression in some patients, further testing is needed. 

Lingering Concerns of Cannabis Use 

The stigma of cannabis use is correlated to the level of punitive laws in a given country or region. BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color), especially, have faced overcriminalization and experienced higher prejudices than other racial groups, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union.

However, even in areas where the law hasn’t relaxed around marijuana use, a more liberal attitude toward cannabis use and medical marijuana is spreading. 

Like any drug, cannabis can affect different people in different ways, especially regarding mental health. While some will experience relief from anxiety and depression, others may experience the opposite. As with anxiety, some report their sleep is hindered rather than helped by medical marijuana use. 

People with a family history of mental health challenges might find that cannabis use heightens those feelings. After all, cannabis is still a drug. You should definitely consult with your medical professional before using it.

Finally, there is concern about the possibility that medical marijuana use, particularly when inhaled, can reduce lung capacity. Any form of smoke, whether it be from cigarettes, burning wood, or marijuana, can harm the human lungs. 

According to the American Lung Association, though, “it’s not possible to establish whether these occur more frequently among marijuana smokers than the general population.”

In most cases, the risks parallel the amount of the substance consumed. Moderate usage of controlled amounts of medical marijuana seems to show limited damage to the lungs and other parts of the body. 

Medical Marijuana Use in Professional Sports 

In December 2020, the National Basketball Association (NBA) announced it wouldn’t test its players for marijuana use during the upcoming 2021 season. The move could be a precursor to eliminating marijuana testing altogether as other professional sports leagues have done in recent years. 

Drug testing in athletic programs is intended to eliminate the unfair advantage that anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs artificially make an athlete faster and stronger. Cannabis doesn’t have that effect on people.  

The NBA Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts has said that “it is not necessary for us to know if players test positive for marijuana.” The inference helps build the case that marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug. 

Here’s a breakdown of the latest stance the top professional sports have taken on cannabis use by its players and the current response to a positive test. 

League Response
NHL (National Hockey League) Cannabis is not a banned substance in the NHL. If a player is found to have “unusually high levels of THC” in their system, he will get substance abuse assistance. No fines or suspensions. 
MLB (Major League Baseball) Cannabis was removed from the official banned substances list in 2019. The MLB was among the first professional sports leagues to do so. 
NBA (National Basketball Association) As of 2020, cannabis has been temporarily suspended from the random drug testing program due to safety concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s undetermined whether it will be reinstated post-pandemic.  
NFL (National Football League)  In 2020, collective bargaining led to positive cannabis tests no longer resulting in suspension.  
USAA triathlon, Iron Man  CBD is fine to use, but THC is not. 
NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Cannabis continues to remain on the banned substances list. The threshold has increased from 15 to 35 nanograms and the penalty for testing positive reduced from a full to a half season.  
MLS (Major League Soccer) and FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) Cannabis use is still banned by the MLS and FIFA. 

Predictions for the Future of Cannabis in Sports

Athletes will still have to adhere to regulations for the safety of all players, and much of the onus will still be on players to make good decisions regarding their use of recreational or medical marijuana.

It’s important that athletes regulate and limit their substance use, but the fear that allowing cannabis will open the door to other, more addictive, drugs in sports is not realistic.

Everyone involved wants to see players reach their fullest potential. Rehabilitation, rather than punishment, will continue to be the focus in sports. Substance-abuse programs for athletes should take the lead over fines and suspensions. It may not happen in the near future, but I’m going to keep fighting for it. 

Finally, in my experience playing college elite sports, the NCAA is trailing professional sports leagues in their progressiveness toward marijuana use. I truly hope the growing acceptance of medical marijuana in sports will expand to NCAA college athletes, as well. Only time will tell. 

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