Behind the Bench, Sports

It’s high time for change: Athletics organizations must relax marijuana testing rules

On Feb. 25, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced that it would be relaxing the rules surrounding positive marijuana tests for its athletes. Effective immediately and extending retroactively to drug tests conducted as early as fall 2021, the threshold levels for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana, are increasing from 35 nanograms to 150 nanograms per millilitre. Moreover, positive tests will result in less harsh penalties, and student athletes with a single positive test will no longer be immediately banned from future events.

Cannabis has long been legally considered a dangerous recreational drug, falling in the same category as other substances like heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and peyote according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) schedule categories. But in recent years especially, the validity of this classification has repeatedly been called into question, with countries like Canada, along with several American states, legalizing the drug for medicinal and recreational use.

In the world of professional athletics, cannabis use is permitted in infinitesimally small amounts, and athletes with positive tests are subject to the same penalties for cannabis as for banned performance-enhancing drugs. The rules are set by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and its national agencies like the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

In 2021, American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson attained the title of sixth fastest woman in the world, and later qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after she ran 100 metres in an electric 10.86 seconds. In July, however, Richardson received a positive marijuana test, forcing her into a one-month suspension and stripping her of her Olympic eligibility. 

Despite cannabis being legal in Oregon, where the trials took place, and Richardson coping with the death of her mother just one week prior to her race—news which was relayed to her by a reporter—WADA expressed its intent to stick with the suspension decision. Yet, just half a year later, Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva was still permitted to compete in the 2022 Beijing Olympics despite a positive test for trimetazidine, a banned angina medication. 

The placement of cannabis alongside serious performance-enhancing drugs immediately sticks out as a rather silly ascription. The connotations surrounding marijuana usage surely do not paint the picture of a beefy, doped-up athlete ready to annihilate their competition. If anything, the drug could be considered a performance-diminishing drug. A high sprinter would likely have more trouble reaching the finish line, after all, cannabis consumption causes relaxation, confusion, and can slow down reaction time—they might even get a bit giggly and lost.

A 2021 review study compiled a variety of articles investigating the health effects of cannabis and its main cannabinoids (THC and CBD) on athletic health and performance. Unsurprisingly, their conclusions pointed to cannabis having “null or detrimental” effects on athletic performance. The most “enhancing” effect cannabis might have is relieving feelings of anxiety and helping ease recovery. Several other studies support these findings: Marijuana does not improve one’s physical abilities.

The efforts of WADA and its affiliates in eliminating drug use among athletes focus on fairness and athletic equality in sporting competitions. Why then are anabolic steroids, categorically known for enhancing strength and performance, or cocaine, a powerful stimulant drug frequently criticized for its overdosing potential, in the same list of banned substances as THC and cannabis products? The list goes on without a single mention of alcohol regulations, in or out of competition. What makes a violently hungover athlete more eligible than one that got high a week ago? These discrepancies are exactly why cannabis rules must be reinvestigated and updated according to modern scientific findings.

The NCAA’s decision to increase THC thresholds, along with their recommendation that penalties for positive tests are significantly reduced, is a sizable step in a productive direction. If the science does not support such harsh restrictions, it is time to let go of old conservative perceptions surrounding marijuana and THC.

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