Is Cannabis a Permitted Drug for Olympians?

With the Rio Olympics now underway, one of the key talking points already has been drugs. Last night, in the pool, a gold and silver medal were won by athletes who had previously served bans for using performance enhancing substances outlawed by the International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency. A Dutch gymnast has even been kicked out of the games for excessive alcohol consumption.

Most of the drugs on the banned substances list are obscure chemicals most people will never have heard of, like Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone, 19-Norandrostenedione, and Quinbolone. Alongside them are a handful more recognisable drugs like Modafinil, MDMA, and Cocaine. But what about cannabis?

As it turns out, WADA recently changed the rules when it comes to the most popular ‘illicit’ drug in the world. They haven’t quite removed it from the banned list, as some have suggested, but what they have done is to change the acceptable nanogram levels for Olympians from 15 to 150 nanograms of THC.

Ben Nichols, from WADA, explained the decision, saying: “Our information suggests that many cases do not involve game or event-day consumption. The new threshold level is an attempt to ensure that in-competition use is detected and not use during the days and weeks before competition.”

The official explanation is essentially an unspoken recognition that Olympians use cannabis. We all know that Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps – two of the most successful athletes of all time – have both admitted to consuming the drug – Phelps was forced to apologise after being photographed with a bong in 2009 – but the decision to increase the limit so substantially certainly seems like one that wouldn’t have been made were it not necessary.

Athletes from all sports, not just Olympians, have admitted to cannabis use in the past, not simply as a way to get high, but as a tool to enhance their own abilities. Cannabis is an anti-inflammatory, a relaxant, and can even increase oxygen flow to the lungs. It’s usefulness for sport stars should be pretty obvious, even without the numerous admissions from the likes of Bolt, Phelps, skier Ross Rebagliati, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and cricketers Phil Tufnell and Sir Ian Botham.

The change to the anti-doping law has also been forced by something else: the steady spread of legalisation around the globe, particularly when it comes to medical cannabis. Even now there is no distinction made between recreational and medical use, meaning that should an athlete require medical cannabis, their options are still severely limited. The same is the case in national sporting leagues, particularly in the USA – where much of the country now allows the use of medical marijuana. The people who make the rules when it comes to the NFL, etc, have yet to catch up.

In this sense, the IOC and WADA could still be considered behind the times by not allowing for the medical use of cannabis among athletes. But at what point does cannabis use tip over from medical to performance-enhancing?

The stereotypical view of cannabis as a drug that makes its users listless and lazy has already been blown out of the water by the likes of Phelps and Bolt. But it is perfectly reasonable to flip it on its head and argue that cannabis can improve performance. As I’ve already mentioned, it can certainly reduce stress and ease pain, among other things, but could the altered consciousness of an athlete who has recently consumed cannabis contribute to, for example, increased perception? Could the well-documented “time-slowdown” effect allow sportsmen and women to make better decisions in the heat of competition?

These are questions that are very difficult, if not impossible, to answer, and they leave the IOC and WADA in a difficult situation. With the recent rule change, they seem to have hedged their bets, by keeping cannabis on the banned list but increasing the limit of THC allowed in the blood, meaning athletes can’t get away with cannabis use on the day of competition for any reason. This solution may work for now, but there may come a time when they have to make a real decision, and it will certainly be fascinating to see what they decide.

Deej Sullivan
Deej Sullivan is a writer and activist from the UK. He regularly writes on drug policy and politics for NORML UK, the UKCSCs, London Real, and his own blog,


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