High-level sports: Looking at athletes and cannabis in the age of legalization

By in Sports & Health
U of S huskies players practice at Griffiths stadium.

Cannabis is now legal, and while this may be where the conversation ends for some, there is still much to be discussed following the federal legislation. In the realm of sports, it seems that not much will change, as athletes will continue to be barred from using the substance.

Even though the law may be changing at the federal level, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport will continue to categorize cannabis as a prohibited substance. Paul Melia, president and CEO of CCES, says that this decision is in line with the rules set forth by the World Anti-Doping Agency and that WADA’s position on cannabis will continue to be reflected by the CCES.

According to WADA’s position on the topic, a substance makes the prohibited list if it meets two of three criteria: if it has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance, if it poses an actual or potential health risk or if it violates the spirit of sport. Melia says that cannabis meets these criteria.

“While the CCES does not view cannabis as particularly performance enhancing, we do have anecdotal accounts of athletes using it therapeutically with the intent to improve performance or recovery by managing pain, stress or anxiety,” Melia said in an email to the Sheaf. “Habitual use or abuse presents the potential for harm, especially for younger athletes. Impairment during competition presents a liability to the safety of the athlete and their competitors.”

As many know, just because something is illegal or banned does not mean that no one will be doing it. Athletes have used cannabis prior to legalization and most likely won’t stop now that it is legal and more easily accessible. Between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2017, the CCES reports that three athletes tested positive for cannabis — making it the most popular single substance across all 13 recorded infractions during the year.

The Sheaf to spoke to a former Huskies athlete about their cannabis use while participating in competitions. Ellie Williams*, a student at the University of Saskatchewan and former Huskie, explains that the nature of their cannabis consumption, both in the time leading up to and during their time playing with a Huskies team, was as a means of mental release.

“I smoked for about three years — two of which were steady smoking, one while participating with the team,” Williams said. “I used marijuana as a mental escape. I would say [I used it] every second day if not everyday.”

Drug tests are something that most athletes go through — they search for prohibited substances, ranging from steroids to cannabis and others, and are administered at random, meaning that, for the most part, an athlete is unaware if they are going to be tested. Williams spoke to the stress they experienced with this possibility in mind.

“The possibility of a drug test caused me a lot of stress, [but] I didn’t smoke for any other reason [than] to relieve anxiety and [help with] mental relaxation while taking five classes, having two jobs and participating with the team,” Williams said.

Though Williams was not using cannabis with the intent to modify their athletic performance, Williams notes that their use of marijuana had effects on their performance as an athlete.

“It definitely slowed the oxygen to my body and caused numbness and tingling, depending on the timeframe of smoking. I was slowed down for sure and felt fatigued very [quickly] after arriving,” Williams said.

On the topic of athletes smoking, Williams shares a similar opinion to that of the CCES — that athletes should continue to be barred from cannabis.

“I think it’s absolutely a good idea. No athlete benefits from marijuana use. If anything, it would be detrimental to their performance, which any serious athlete would be against,” Williams said. “At the time I was on the team, I was struggling with my mental illnesses and used smoking as a coping method.”

*To respect the privacy of the individual interviewed, their name has been changed.

Jack Thompson / Sports & Health Editor

Photo: David Hartman