Competing High: Cannabis and the World of Sports

Issue : April / May 2019

Competing High: Cannabis and the World of Sports

By: Noel Sutabutr


The legalization of cannabis has been the talk of the town these past few months. Bhum Jai Thai party even placed it at the top of their election platform since the country has made medicinal ganja legal.


This is still a very debatable topic not only in Thailand but in many countries around the world. Should Cannabis be legalized? Do the benefits outweigh the potential harmful effects? If so, how should it be regulated?


As a recent graduate of the Sports Industry Management Program of Georgetown University, these questions often came up during discussions in classes in the context of sports, and from research, there appear to be both pros and cons for allowing cannabis to be used in sports.


In Thailand, there is evidence that marijuana has been known and used since the reign of Ayutthaya as far back as 360 years ago, but its use became illegal in 1937 probably because of US influence. The reason was mainly politics as, at that time, there was not nearly enough scientific research on what the plant actually does to our mental state and physical body.


Today, though, many countries have legalized the use of both medical and recreational cannabis. Last year, Canada legalized recreational cannabis on 17 October while the UK legalized medical cannabis on 1 November. In the US, recreational cannabis is now legal in 10 states and Washington, DC while medical cannabis is legal in 33 other states.


Before discussing whether cannabis is beneficial to athletes, you need to understand that there are two main Cannabinoids in a cannabis plant: Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). Cannabiniod is basically a chemical compound that interacts with our Endocannabiniod System (ECS), which regulates mood, appetite, memory and pain sensation. Both chemical structures have health benefits, but only THC provides a psychoactive effect, meaning it gives you the “high” sensation while CBD only offers various medical benefits, including pain, inflammation and nausea relief, appetite stimulation, muscle spasm treatment and concussion protection.


In the sports world, as of now, THC is classified as a performance enhancing substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) while CBD is not. This means that THC is banned in most sports because the WADA anti-doping code is adopted by more than 600 sports governing bodies around the world. However, many other sports governing bodies ban both THC and CBD but enforce different punishments regarding the plant. For instance, although both the National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL) ban THC and CBD, the NFL, which is often perceived as the most conservative league among the four major leagues in the US, has a more severe punishment than the NHL for use of marijuana.


Despite cannabis being illegal in most sports, there have been countless incidents where athletes have admitted using it, not only after but also before competing.


A veteran NBA player, Matt Barnes, told Bleacher Report that he was “medicated” in all his best games. Barnes won the NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and spent 14 seasons in the NBA.


Shaun Smith, a former Dallas Cowboy, also said that he smoked two blunts before every game.


According to Bleacher Report, Bo Scaife and Martellus Bennett, both NFL veterans, and Kenyon Martin, an NBA veteran, estimated that more than 80 percent of both leagues smoke cannabis.


In 2009, Michael Phelps, a 23-time Olympic gold medallist, was seen using a bong in a photo. He lost two sponsorships from Rosetta and AT&T but would go on to win four gold medals and two silver medals at the London Games in 2012, and five gold medals and a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Games.


The list of athletes goes on and the debate as to whether cannabis is good in terms of improving athletic performance continues.


CBD is known to have medical properties that help with an athlete’s recovery. As mentioned earlier, CBD helps relieve pain and inflammation and protect against concussions.


This has particularly been a controversial issue in the NFL since it is a very high contact sport and chronic pain is often inevitable for the players. The treatment for pain has been opioids. The problem is that they are highly addictive and have many dangerous side effects, even death. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), in 2017 alone, there were 47,600 deaths involving opioids. In a survey conducted by ESPN in 2011, 52 percent of former players used prescription opioids during their NFL career; 71 percent of these reported misusing them during their games. Now, due to the dangers that come with opioid use, many players are supporting the notion that the NFL should remove CBD from its banned substances.


As for THC, there is still very little scientific evidence as to whether it improves athletic performance. Many athletes claim that it helps them relax and reduce anxiety before an important competition. Some even claim that it helps increase focus and risk-taking behaviours as well as helps athletes forget past traumas during competition. It can also contribute to creativity which is useful in many sports.


And this is where the problem lies; if THC helps athletes perform better, then THC is clearly a performance enhancing substance since it gives an athlete an unfair advantage. Yet, one can argue that there are also negative effects as it can slow down reaction time, impair eye-hand coordination and possibly distort perception.


In Thailand, there is very little if any research on cannabis and sports, and while there have been no Thai athletes who have admitted using the plant, due to the benefits mentioned earlier, both THC and CBD could be extremely useful in many of our popular sports such as soccer, volleyball and Muay Thai.


Considering the recent push for legalization of all forms of cannabis, sooner or later Thai athletes will probably at some point be able to benefit from this plant and start competing “high”.





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