With cannabis now legal in Canada, some athletes are beginning to question whether or not it will remain a prohibited drug in competition. Historically, cannabis has been a known, banned substance for professional athletes, and one that most amateur athletes avoided. Following legalization though, more athletes are speaking out on the benefits of cannabis to enhance performance and alleviate pain. But does cannabis actually improve athletic performance?

Prohibition in Sports

Internationally, cannabis will continue to be listed as a substance “Prohibited In Competition” on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)’s Prohibited List. This list provides an international standard for prohibited substances in sports and competition.

In Canada, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport has stated that even though cannabis is now legal for recreational use, the new legislation doesn’t affect athletes subject to the Canadian Anti-Doping Program. Cannabis will continue to be prohibited and a positive test can still result in a sanction. This is because we adhere to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s anti-doping standards.

However, as of 2018, WADA no longer lists CBD as a prohibited substance. Although athletes should still be cautious, as CBD products often contain trace amounts of THC and THC is a banned substance. Athletes should also know that using cannabis for approved medical needs still may not be allowed. There’s no guarantee that a medical exemption will be granted.

Why’s it Banned?

Most people assume that cannabis is banned because it’s thought to enhance performance. However, there are actually three criteria for banned substances. Substances are added to the Prohibited List because they meet two of the three following criteria:

  • Use of the substance has the potential to enhance performance
  • Use of the substance can cause harm to the health of the athlete
  • Use of the substance violates the spirit of sport

WADA does not find that cannabis enhances ability but rather that, over an extended period of use, cannabis can have harmful effects on the user. Impairment during certain sports also risks the safety of athletes, their teammates, and competitors. It’s also considered to be respectful to other athletes and the sport to compete “clean, clear, and sober,” which ties into that final criteria point.

Cannabis for Pain Management

Many athletes suffer from pain such as joint soreness and inflammation following a hard practice or game. The most popular options for managing this pain are painkillers like opioids or cortisone shots, but these have been shown to damage cartilage in the long-term.

Cannabis is proving to be an effective alternative to current methods of pain management. It’s been shown to help athletes recover more quickly and decrease pain. If it’s regulated like any other pain medication and completely out of the system before the next game, it could be a viable option for athletes in the near future.

Other Benefits

Other than helping with pain, athletes use cannabis for a number of reasons. They may use it before a game to help reduce stress and anxiety: both of which can be damaging to athletic performance in high-intensity, highly publicized sports. It’s also thought to increase focus. THC can enhance the sensations of the user, but it isn’t clear whether it safely improves the athlete’s ability to focus.

So, Does it Enhance Athletic Ability?

There are benefits to using cannabis after extreme exercise to help manage pain and inflammation, and some research does show that CBD especially sharpens the minds of athletes; however, most experts, including WADA, agree that there is no real enhancement to athletes’ abilities. In fact, some say that because the THC in cannabis impairs your mind, it actually makes a fairly poor athletic aid.

Currently, there’s still a lot to learn about the effects of cannabis on athletes. Legalization will allow for more research in to how cannabis can be safely used to help athletes with recovery times, and if it actually enhances their sports performance. In the end, there’s really not enough evidence yet to say if it truly helps or hinders athletic performance.