WADA’s war on drugs continues as cannabis remains on banned list

In September last year, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) said it was reviewing the status of cannabis, which is prohibited in competition. This followed the positive test of USA’s sprinting star Sha’Carri Richardson during the US Olympic Track and Field trials in June. She was banned and missed the Olympics. However, on Thursday WADA said the recreational drug would remain on its list.

Is an athlete at risk of getting banned if she or he ingests marijuana?

Cannabis is sourced from the cannabis sativa plant. There are over 500 chemical substances in the plant but the one on Wada’s prohibited list is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC gives users of marijuana the high. So, cannabis in Wada’s books is marijuana, the chemical in which is THC.

So, an athlete can test positive for cannabis when not at a competition and get away?

Yes. Cannabis is banned only in-competition. This means that an athlete faces a risk of getting banned only for a positive test from a sample collected during a competition. For example, an athlete can smoke marijuana in the off-season and test positive but is unlikely to be banned.

How long can an athlete be banned?

From 2021 onwards, a positive test for cannabis can result in as short a ban as one month, according to Wada. For a reduced ban; down from two to four years earlier, athletes must prove that the use of cannabis was before entering a competition, which means the athlete did not intend to experience its effects while competing. Under the Wada code, cannabis is defined as a ‘substance of abuse’.

Has Wada also increased the permitted level of cannabis in the body?

Wada says the current limit of 150 nanograms per millilitre in urine will be found in athletes who are frequent users and are impaired because of the effects of cannabis. The threshold limit in 2013 was just 15 ng/ml.

Is cannabis performance enhancing in sports?

Cannabis is known to delay fatigue, mask pain and improve concentration but at the same time can increase heart beat which is not good, says Dr PSM Chandra, the former director (sports science) of the Sports Authority of India. Dr Chandra, who has been part of anti-doping panels, said, “Cannabis, like all drugs, has its pros and cons but it is still unclear if it can help an athlete. There are studies which show it can reduce motor movement.”

Evidence of an increasing number of runners using cannabis during training was documented in the book Runners’ High by Josiah Hesse. A research paper titled ‘Cannabis in sport, anti-doping perspective’ says there are benefits for athletes such as ‘improved oxygenation to tissues, improvement of vision for goalkeepers, and muscle relaxation’. Cannabis can also reduce anxiety, fear, and tension, the paper says. “Athletes under the influence of cannabis indicate that their thoughts flow more easily and their decision making and creativity is enhanced; others claim that cannabis improves their concentration or reduces pain. Health professionals have encountered athletes including gymnasts, divers, football players and basketball players who claim smoking cannabis before play helps them to focus better,” the paper, which Wada has cited in the past as evidence, states.

The National Football League (NFL) is funding $1 million in grants for studies into benefits of marijuana in helping players in pain management and also its benefits in protection from concussions. The NFL only fines players for testing positive for cannabis.

Did Richardson’s positive test lead to calls to remove cannabis from the prohibited list?

Richardson, 22, emerged as the next big star when she clocked 10.72 seconds in the 100 metres in Lausanne in August last year. She also won the US Olympic trials in Oregon, incidentally a state where use and possession of recreational cannabis is legal for anyone over 21. Richardson told NBC in an interview that she used marijuana after she could not control her emotions on hearing about the death of her biological mother from a reporter while at the trials. Richardson was brought up by her grandmother.

One of the many prominent athletes who wanted WADA to cut Richardson some flak was former 400 metre world record holder Michael Johnson. “I don’t know why marijuana is banned. Maybe a good reason. Maybe not. I know how it feels to lose a parent. Indescribable pain! I’m from the same neighbourhood as @itskerrii Tough place!” Johnson had tweeted.

Who are the other prominent sports stars who want Cannabis removed from the prohibited list?

Canadian Ross Rebagliati won the snowboard gold in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics but had to return his medal (it was given back later) after he tested positive for the recreational drug.

“I think it’s time, it’s overdue actually. If athletes are allowed to consume alcohol and tobacco, let them have weed. It is the only thing that is good for you of those three things,” Rebagliati told Reuters when Canada legalized marijuana in 2018. Former World Heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson and former Tour de France winner Floyd Landis were signatories to an Athletes for CARE petition to Wada asking to remove cannabis from the prohibited list. Both Rebagliati and Tyson run legal cannabis businesses.

How did Wada go about the review?

Wada in its statement said that nine independent experts (List Expert Advisory Group) including those in pharmacology, forensic toxicology, pharmacy, sports medicine, chemistry, endocrinology, internal medicine, regulatory affairs and hematology had conducted the review of the status of cannabis in the prohibited list. Potential to enhance performance, health risk to athletes and the spirit of the sport are the criteria these experts looked at. A substance needs to meet two of these three criteria to be included in the prohibited list.

The expert advisory group reviewed scientific studies, published surveys and testimonies of athletes who used cannabis. Wada says that use of cannabis violates the spirit of the sport but didn’t specify which of the other two criteria the recreational drug met.

However, Wada’s director general acknowledged that the issue was complicated. “The question of how THC should be dealt with in a sporting context is not straightforward. WADA is aware of the diversity of opinions and perceptions related to this substance around the world, and even within certain countries,” Oliver Niggli, the Wada DG said. Wada will continue its research on the performance enhancing effects of cannabis and its impact on the health of athletes.

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