A pain expert questions the science behind cannabis prohibition in sports.
Track and field star Sha’Carri Richardson’s medal-winning hopes were dashed when she tested positive for THC, the main intoxicating compound found in marijuana, disqualifying her from the Tokyo Olympics with a one-month suspension. The uproar that followed the announcement is the latest indication of shifting attitudes around cannabis, as more people, including world-renowned athletes, use cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes.
Michigan Health Lab talked to pain-management expert Kevin Boehnke, Ph.D., about the decision and athletics and cannabis in general:
The World Anti-Doping Agency prohibits the use of all natural and synthetic cannabinoids except cannabidiol (CBD) during competition. What do you think is the basis of this rule?
The World Anti-Doping Agency published a paper in the journal Sports Medicine in 2011 that cited three reasons for this prohibition. The first reason cannabis is prohibited because athletes who use it allegedly may endanger themselves through slowed reaction times and loss of executive function, and the second reason states that interviews and animal studies have found that cannabis may potentially be performance enhancing. The third reason basically states that athletes are role models and using cannabis is a violation of the spirit of sport.
Reasons one and two are potentially contradictory, as slowed reaction time certainly isn’t performance enhancing. Reason three appears to be tied to the War on Drugs policies, which criminalized cannabis and punished people for using or promoting it. This last reason is especially troubling, as these policies pushed a false narrative of extreme cannabis-related harm and were enforced in incredibly racist and societally damaging ways. It also doesn’t quite square with current athletic partnerships with alcohol companies, which one might argue violates the spirit of sports due to the known dangers of alcohol (which substantially exceed those of cannabis.)