Canada: How will the legalization of cannabis affect athletes? It's hard to say

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While there’s been plenty of discussion around the pending legalization of cannabis, its effect on athletes hasn’t been part of the conversation. One of the reasons for the absence of dialogue is marijuana’s reputation for impairing, not improving athletic performance, which makes cannabis a poor workout partner.

The other reason that athletes have been left out of the discourse is the inclusion of marijuana on the World Anti Doping Association’s (WADA) list of substances banned during the competitive season, thereby limiting its use among elite athletes. Yet despite these factors, marijuana is reported to be the second most popular drug among athletes, after alcohol. It replaces tobacco, which ranks No. 2 among the rest of the population.

Prohibited by WADA for in-season use since 2004, marijuana is considered a “risk to health” of athletes and “in violation of the spirit of sport.” Yet the legalization of cannabis in Canada may lead to a change in how our athletes, both recreational and elite, view marijuana.

“Changing social attitudes and cannabis policies around the world may play an important role in changing use patterns of cannabis among athletes,” said a team of Montreal researchers led by Mark Ware.

Ware, who recently took a leave from his role as associate professor of family medicine and anesthesia at Montreal’s McGill University Health Centre to accept the position of chief medical officer at a medical marijuana company, addressed with his team the issue of cannabis and the health and performance of the elite athlete in a review paper published this month in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

Getting a clear picture of how marijuana affects performance as well as the pattern of use among athletes isn’t easy. There are ethical issues around getting athletes to participate in studies given the existing laws concerning the use of marijuana as well as those instituted by sporting organizations. And given that the potency of cannabis varies depending on the strain and how it’s used and that much of the data compiled in studies as early as a decade ago may reflect a substance far different from the one sold today, there’s some question about the veracity of the information we do have.

In the meantime what we do know is that cannabis use increases heart rate and blood pressure while reducing physical work capacity, none of which are conditions consistent with winning gold.  As such, it’s unlikely that athletes use cannabis with the expectation that it’s going to result in an immediate boost in performance. Instead its use is likely related to its secondary affects. Marijuana has been used to ameliorate pain and concussion symptoms, improve sleep, spark appetite and reduce the stress associated with competing at the elite level.

“Self-reported use of cannabis for pain and concussion management among elite athletes is increasingly being reported,” said the Montreal research team.

Also reported by a separate team of researchers is that athletes involved in individual sports such as snowboarding, skiing, surfing, sailing and kayaking are more likely to use marijuana than team sport athletes.

Yet despite how athletes regard marijuana, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport is clear that it will continue to be prohibited during competition even after legalization. To help clear up any confusion, they have published a Cannabis in Sport information guide geared to elite athletes subject to drug testing and doping violations.

Still, Ware believes that legalization creates conditions that are ripe for more research on the use of marijuana within the athletic community. That said, there are safety considerations worthy of acknowledgement. Recreational users have been known to experience deficits in memory, coordination and judgment and chronic use in youth is thought to have long-term negative consequences. Episodes of paranoia and/or psychosis have also been linked to high doses of cannabis, hence WADA’s concerns regarding the safety of athletes who use the drug.

Ware hopes that given concerns about safety and the changing views and laws on marijuana, the opportunity to find out more about the real world use of cannabis within the athletic community shouldn’t be ignored.

“Legalization (of marijuana) allows us to have more honest and open conversations with athletes,” said Ware.

Those conversations, combined with more targeted research on how marijuana use impacts athletes, could lead to more evidence-based information so that athletes of all ages and abilities can make informed choices about how cannabis affects their training and performance. Athletes, like the rest of the country, need information based in science, not assumption, regarding the recreational and medical use of cannabis given its new legal status.

Until we know more about marijuana, athletes are warned that in-season use could lead to a doping violation. And for recreational athletes, the knowledge that cannabis impairs physical and mental capacity over the short term means that caution should be taken when it comes to use prior to training or a workout.

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