World Anti-Doping Agency Doubles Down On Cannabis Ban

September 30, 2023
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WADA doubles down on cannabis ban

In August, several members of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Prohibited List Expert Advisory Group published an editorial in the journal Addiction, weighing in on the organization’s continued ban on cannabis for athletes who wish to participate in its events. 

The editorial’s authors argue that, while there might not be any evidence to suggest that cannabis increases professional athletes’ ability to perform, WADA’s understanding of the potential risks associated with cannabis and its view that cannabis consumption “violates the spirit of the sport.”

Read on to discover exactly why WADA insists on banning cannabis use for its athletes, the real world consequences of the bans, and what direction the future of cannabis in sports might take.

Why does the WADA want to ban cannabis for athletes?

To be clear, WADA doesn’t seem to want to ban absolutely all cannabis use and, according to the August editorial, has actually revised its original ban from 2004 to allow athletes to use CBD products. (Which, of course, comes with the risk of consuming a THC-tainted product, potentially putting an athlete’s career at risk without their knowledge.)

Furthermore, according to the editorial, the ban only applies to in-competition athletes — defined as  “after 23:59  hours on the day prior to competition.” In practice, the editorial claims, this means that “primarily chronic, frequent cannabis users and athletes consuming high doses in-competition will be detected” by anti-doping drug tests for cannabis.

Athletes who want to use cannabis for medicinal reasons can also apply for a “therapeutic use exemption,” the editorial writers state.

The authors cite a series of three criteria for banning a substance under WADA rules: “two of the following three equally-important criteria must be met: (1) it enhances or has the potential to enhance sport performance, (2) it represents an actual or potential risk to the health of the athlete and (3) it violates the spirit of the sport as defined in the [World Anti-Doping] Code.”

According to the editorial, a WADA review of current research found no studies supporting cannabis as an enhancer of athletic ability per se, though the authors do note that “a number of reports” acknowledge certain potential benefits related to anxiety or pain reduction, as well as to recovery from training and competition.

The ban, then, is based primarily on the organization’s view of the potential harm athletes might sustain as a result of cannabis consumption — a factor that may be best left up to the athletes and their coaches — as well as its view of cannabis consumption as a violation of the “spirit of the sport.” 

Cannabis and the “spirit of the sport”

Taking a closer look at how WADA defines violations of the “spirit of the sport” reveals a deeply subjective set of criteria. Here are four aspects of the World Anti-Doping Code the editorial writers cite as relevant to the “spirit” violation, quoted from the editorial: 

  • “Excellence in performance: this could be undermined by consumption of cannabis during the in-competition period.
  • Character and education: the role model aspect is not compatible with use of a substance that is still illegal in most parts of the world.
  • Respect for rules and laws: its use violates the law in most countries in the world, in addition to Anti-Doping Organization rules in some instances.
  • Respect for self and other participants: the welfare and safety of other participants may be compromised by impaired judgment associated with the presence of cannabis in an athlete in-competition.”

After reviewing these criteria, we might have a better understanding of how the practical application of the ban has been characterized as racially charged, especially in situations like WADA’s suspension of U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, a Black woman, over a positive test for THC ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Richardson told reporters that she consumed cannabis as part of her way of coping with the news of her mother’s death during the Olympic trials for Tokyo.

“Richardson looks very much the part of those most criminalized by the war on cannabis in the United States: Black, young, and from an urban area,” explain Rashawn Ray and John Hudak for the Brookings Institute.

“While Richardson will miss an opportunity to compete for gold in Tokyo, back in her home country, hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino Americans will miss out on their dreams for upward mobility as the racial targeting of drug laws give them a record and alter their future,” Ray and Hudak add. 

“This injustice is the source of anger and vitriol directed toward WADA, and the reality of that injustice must be part of any conversation surrounding drug testing procedures.”

Richardson’s suspension prompted a review of WADA’s cannabis ban that, as the August editorial attests, did not create a change in policy despite pressure from former Olympians and American politicians.

Future trends in cannabis and sports

While WADA’s latest review didn’t result in the removal of cannabis from the organization’s banned substance list, it's clear that the foundation for the argument put forward in the August editorial relies on an outdated perception of cannabis heavily influenced by the same colonialist worldview at the root of anti-cannabis laws across the globe.

That worldview, however, seems to be fading away even in nations like the United States, which pioneered the failed War on Drugs at home and abroad. In the U.S. today, cannabis is legal in some capacity in 40 states, and policies continue to shift in response to public opinion and new research across the globe.

Additionally, within the sports world in the United States, several organizations have reevaluated their own cannabis policies. The National Basketball Association, for example, removed cannabis from its banned substances list and created rules for players who want to invest in or support cannabis brands. The National Football League has also reconsidered its cannabis policies, though Sports Illustrated suggested last year that the NFL likely won’t allow players to consume cannabis until it becomes legal under federal law.

Whether changing public perceptions and new rules from major sports organizations regarding cannabis will impact WADA’s ban on the plant is unclear, though increasing legalization and public acceptance of cannabis on a global scale will certainly weaken the organization’s arguments regarding “character and education” and “respect for rules and laws.”

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