Sports

Is Marijuana a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

Sha’Carri Richardson will miss the 100-meter dash in Tokyo, and the reasoning is pretty iffy.

A woman with orange hair points in triumph at the Olympic trials.
Sha’Carri Richardson at the Olympic trials in June. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

On Thursday, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that Sha’Carri Richardson, the sprinter who lit up June’s Olympic track and field trials with her orange hair and blazing times in the women’s 100-meter race, had tested positive for marijuana and would face a ban from international competition. She’s the second U.S. track athlete to be sanctioned for marijuana use this year, after the sprinter Kahmari Montgomery was suspended in June. Why is marijuana a banned drug in athletic competition? It’s certainly only ever depressed my performance, but is it somehow considered performance-enhancing?

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Well, it’s complicated. USADA’s page on marijuana explains that the drug is banned by the World Anti-Doping Association, whose rules USADA must follow, because it meets three criteria: “a) it poses a health risk to athletes b) it has the potential to enhance performance and c) it violates the spirit of sport.” Officially, a drug need only meet two of the three criteria to be banned, but USADA links to a 2011 WADA-sponsored paper that declares the drug meets all three criteria.

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While that paper acknowledges that “cannabis is often portrayed as a substance that has detrimental effects on performance,” the researchers nonetheless speculate that the drug has the potential to enhance performance, based on research, survey responses from French university students, and “anecdotal evidence from blogs and drug hotlines.” For instance, one study “noted that athletes use cannabis for relief of anxiety and stress, and perhaps to reduce muscle spasm.” Athletes self-reporting to WADA’s hotline, the study says, describe marijuana “as a drug that has significant positive effects in sports, such as improvement of vision for goalkeepers and muscle relaxation.”

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“I don’t think marijuana is performance enhancing, or that it should be banned in any sport,” said David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene, who’s reported on doping issues for Sports Illustrated and ProPublica. But he noted that some at WADA believed the drug might offer benefits in sports like the biathlon, where calming and relaxing effects might be useful. “I would view a runner getting banned for marijuana as collateral damage for WADA’s idea that it might help in other sports—but again, I don’t really buy it.”

The head of USADA, Travis Tygart, is a frequent critic of WADA; in fact USADA withheld annual dues from the international organization this year in protest of WADA’s inability to change more quickly.* (Changing anything at WADA is “a Byzantine process,” Epstein said, though he noted with approval the organization’s removal of CBD from the banned list in 2019.) Nevertheless, USADA is bound by WADA’s restrictions, not by changing opinions about marijuana in the U.S. or even the laws of the state where Richardson used marijuana—Oregon, where recreational pot is, to put it lightly, extremely legal.

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Notably, USADA’s official release about Richardson’s positive test does not mention performance enhancement at all. Instead, it focuses on marijuana’s status as a “substance of abuse.” In early 2021, recognizing that some banned substances are used recreationally and not for reasons related to performance, WADA named a group of “substances of abuse,” including cannabis. Athletes who test positive for these drugs can face shorter suspensions if they can show their use of the drug was not related to competition. That’s why Richardson’s suspension is for only one month, not three; Richardson used marijuana, she said Friday, to cope emotionally with the death of her biological mother during the Olympic trials.

Does WADA still believe that marijuana enhances performance, or are the new “substance of abuse” regulations a way of beginning to back off of that decision? A spokesperson from WADA would not comment, citing “an ongoing case,” and referred me to USADA. A spokesperson from USADA would not comment on the record. But it is worth noting a more recent academic paper, “Cannabis and the Health and Performance of the Elite Athlete,” published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine in 2018. The paper surveys research on the subject, which it notes is “scant.” “There is no evidence for cannabis use as a performance-enhancing drug,” conclude the paper’s five authors, who include a specialist in medical marijuana, several sports medicine practitioners, and Dr. Alan Vernec. Dr. Vernec’s day job? He’s the medical director of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

For more on the Olympic controversy surrounding Gwen Berry’s protest at the trials, listen to this episode of A Word.

Correction, July 2, 2021: This post originally misspelled Travis Tygart’s last name.

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