Is CBD a performance-enhancing drug for athletes?

If you’re picturing yourself in college taking bong hits, sinking into the sofa and missing deadlines, you’re probably wondering why highly competitive pro athletes would use cannabis. Times have changed. 

Alongside protein powders and work out supplements, some athletes and their trainers are smoking, eating and anointing themselves in cannabis oils, joints and edibles. And nowadays, weed connoisseurs discuss cannabis strains the way sommeliers compare grape varieties.

The key components of cannabis are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which gives users the feeling of being high and cannabinol (CBN) and cannabidiol (CBD), which are not known for being psycho-active but are likely to have anti-inflammatory effects to alleviate pain and nausea.

I say likely because there’s not a lot of scientific data about cannabis and this makes our question — is cannabis a performance enhancing drug? — difficult to answer.

What we do know is some athletes use cannabis and say it helps relieve anxiety and facilitates focus. Let’s start back in 1998 when Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati nearly lost his Olympic medal after testing positive for cannabis. He appealed and won back his medal because, at the time, cannabis was not on the banned-substance list.

It was added to the list a year later but not because it was known to give athletes an unfair advantage, more so it was added to the banned list because cannabis is illegal in much of the world. Rebagliati is from Canada which was one of the first nations to allow medical marijuana use in 2001. He’s taking advantage of that ruling and has set up shop as a dispenser of medical marijuana

“For me, whether you are skiing, or snowboarding, or riding a road bike, or working out at the gym, [marijuana use] puts you in the moment. You get in a zone where you can give it 110 percent,” he says on his website.

Cannabis is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency which oversees drug testing for the Olympics. It’s also banned by the United States Anti-Doping Agency and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

But the World Anti-Doping Agency recently changed the rules regarding how much cannabis was allowed in an athlete’s blood. The threshold was raised from 15 ng/ml to 150 ng/ml, which gives an indication the agency is concerned about athletes smoking during the games but not in the weeks prior to the competition.

Back when Rebagliati first lost his Olympic medal, his blood concentration of cannabis was 17.8 ng/ml. He said the result was from second-hand smoke, a statement he stands by today. He was quick to defend Olympic champion Michael Phelps in 2009 when a photo of a 23 year-old Phelps taking a bong hit went viral. 

Michael Phelps CBD and Medical Marijuana User

Phelps isn’t the only Olympic athlete who has admitted to a history of cannabis use. Some have even been banned for using it. In 2012, American judoka Nicholas Delpopolo was banned from competing in the London Olympics after testing positive for cannabis.

Weed science

Because it’s a schedule 1 drug, there aren’t many well-designed studies looking at the effect of cannabis on humans. Much of the research comes from experiments in rodents but there are differences between cannabinoid receptors in mice and men.

Some evidence comes from people who admit to self-medicating with cannabis, even in places where it's illegal. That’s one way we know that cannabis can be effective in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. A study of 112 MS patients in the US and UK in the 1990's found cannabis improved symptoms of pain, depression and tremors in more than 90 percent of MS patients.

It’s been reported that cannabis can alleviate anxiety, cause euphoria and improve sociability which could help with the stress of playing competitive sports. But it can also cause paranoia, a rapid heart beat, disrupt hand-eye coordination and decrease reaction time -- not what you want during a high-stake game.

Still, while some athletes I have spoken to report taking cannabis before a game citing its ability to help with focus and pain tolerance, others say they would never dream of playing high. Instead, some have told me they smoke, vape or eat cannabis to help facilitate a good night’s sleep before a game.

It's possible to use cannabis without getting high. Preparations that limit the amount of THC while delivering a hit of CBD claim to alleviate nausea, reduce anxiety and help with mood and sleep. 

If you live in a state where it's legal, cannabis is now available in energy bars and edibles as well as in formulations for smoking and vaping. You can rub cannabis-infused balms and ointments into fatigued muscles to aid relaxation and pain relief.

In an effort to destigmatize cannabis use and demonstrate that weed users are athletes, too, Jim McAlpine started the 420 Games, a series of 5-mile runs in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. 

Some pro-athletes are possibly putting their careers on the line by advocating for cannabis as a pain management option. As the country battles a deadly and devastating epidemic of deaths from prescription painkillers, former Baltimore Ravens player Eugene Monroe publicly asked the NFL to let players use medical marijuana and CBD.

Eugene Monroe Advocate for Medical Marijuana and CBD

The Ravens issued a statement saying they did not stand behind Robinson’s request and in June, they released him from the team. It's unclear whether Monroe was let go because of injuries or because of his stance on medical marijuana. 

It’s interesting to note that the drugs responsible for killing tens of thousands of Americans each year, drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin, are legal and sit in a lower, less prohibitive DEA category than cannabis. While cannabis remains a schedule 1 drug, getting any meaningful data on its effects on athletic performance and overall health may be nearly impossible.

Since the Passing of the 2018 Farm Bill CBD and Hemp are now listed as a Schedule 5 drug with the DEA and the FDA no longer has it on the banned substance list.  It will be interesting to see if the NFL will allow CBD for the upcoming season.  There have already been reports of NFL players using CBD for Anxiety and Inflammation.