Is Cannabis A Performance-Enhancing Drug? The Science Is In And The Answer Is No

One of track and field’s most electrifying athletes and the nation's top sprinter, Sha'Carri Richardson missed out on the 2021 Tokyo Olympics when she tested positive for cannabis in her home state of Oregon where it’s legal. 

Richardson, among the fastest female runners in history, was suspended by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which is a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) code, meaning they're obliged to follow its rules. And one of WADA’s rules is that cannabis was and still is a prohibited substance. WADA noted in its Jan. 2023 release that THC consumption will result in shorter suspensions but that its in-competition ban remains in place. 

Why? In its report, WADA tiptoes around the science, saying that current evidence does not support THC enhancement of physiological performance but…“[t]he potential for performance enhancement through neuropsychological effects still cannot be excluded.”

Is WADA Still Getting It Wrong? Scientists Say Yes It Is

A drug must meet two of three specific criteria to make WADA’s list of prohibited substances. If a substance enhances performance, creates a health risk or goes against the “spirit” of the sport, then it’s in violation. But does cannabis really meet those criteria? 

literature review of eight peer-reviewed publications as well as 10 literature reviews published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, concluded that marijuana consumption “does not act as a sports performance enhancing agent as raised by popular beliefs.” And that “cannabis consumption prior to exercise should be avoided in order to maximize performance in sports.” If anything, there is not enough robust evidence from large, reputable studies to suggest that marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug, per the scientific review.

NBA, MLB And NFL Move Closer To Accepting Cannabis 

Outside of the Olympics, other sports organizations have changed their rules on cannabis. Pro baseball led the way in 2019 when the MLB removed weed from its banned substances list. The NBA announced at the end of March that it would stop testing players for cannabis and went so far as to allow players to promote and/or invest in sports betting and cannabis companies. Though the NFL changed its penalty for a positive marijuana result to a fine rather than a suspension in 2020, the league still faces growing pressure to stop testing altogether. 

Meanwhile, keep an eye on Sha'Carri Richardson who just won the 100-meter sprint in 10.57 seconds at the 2023 Miramar Invitational. She's blazing toward the 2024 Olympics, with or without WADA’s blessing. 

Image: Benzinga edit with Lazyllama by Shutterstock and jenaragon94 Wikimedia Commons

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