• Kira London-Nadeau

Cannabis and Sport: What Can We Expect from Legalization?

As Canada moves forward with the legalization of nonmedical cannabis, athletes and sports leagues across the country are facing the brand-new challenge of managing mixed signals between the federal and global regulatory bodies. Although federal legislature will allow adults to legally purchase and consume cannabis, this substance remains prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

To complicate matters more, alcohol, another legal drug, and CBD, a component of cannabis, have recently been removed from the WADA’s prohibited substances list. This makes THC, specifically, the subject of contention, although some major sports leagues also test for CBD.

The role of cannabis in sport, and its potential effects, remain just as contentious. For example, a review published in 2011 deemed cannabis unfit for sport, listing detrimental health effects coupled with evidence for the enhancement of certain critical functions as reasons for which the use of cannabis violates the “spirit of sport.” In contrast, a more recent review did not find evidence for a performance-enhancing effect of the substance, but cites limited yet promising evidence for its use to manage chronic pain and concussion-related symptoms.

NICHE writer, Kira London- Nadeau moderating a panel discussion on cannabis and sport at the recent Pracademics Cannabis Summit in Montreal

The latter point of view is echoed by certain prominent activists in the field. Among them are Riley Cote, an ex-NHL player and co-founder of Athletes for Care, and Mike James, a current free agent in the NFL and the first player to file for a therapeutic use exemption for medical cannabis. NICHE had the pleasure to discuss these players’ experiences with them during a panel at the Pracademics Cannabis Summit on August 22nd in Québec City. Cote and James advocated vociferously for the allowance of cannabis in sport, particularly for pain management. Their experiences alongside several of their teammates who were heavily consuming and experiencing the side effects of opioids pushed these two athletes to advocate for cannabis as a less harmful alternative.

Another outspoken advocate for cannabis in sport is Philippe Dépault, the Head of Maitri for Hiku Brand, who competed at elite levels in mountain biking and was previously staunchly opposed to the use of the substance. Following the development of an autoimmune disease, Dépault changed his stance:

“When I entered the health system, I was prescribed all the medications you can think of: antidepressants, opiate patches, pills, and didn’t receive much benefit from either.”

After trying cannabis for the first time, having lived with painful symptoms for 8 months, Dépault experienced his first full night’s sleep in a long time, alongside a dramatic reduction in symptoms:

“THC was the molecule that reduced my symptoms the most.”

This introduction to cannabis from a medical point of view is also what Dépault sees as the eventual bridge between legalization in Canada and the WADA’s regulations, especially as CBD consumption becomes more prominent:

“The two main effects of CBD, its anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties, are extremely important in an athlete’s world.”

Despite increased coverage of cannabis-positive stories relating to sport, several Canadian sporting leagues and associations are standing firm in their position. Allowances for medical cannabis use can be made in certain circumstances, but the WADA remains the deciding regulatory body, and athletes should be cautious about the legal standing of cannabis in Canada. As Pierre Arsenault, the director of athletics and recreation at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, stated, “I didn’t know” will not be an acceptable excuse.

Nonetheless, alongside the confusion that legalization might instill in athletes will come new knowledge about cannabis as opportunities for research increase exponentially. According to Dr. Mark Ware, Chief Medical Officer at Canopy Growth, more research and less stigma will open up the conversation to explore more evidence-based policies and productive dialogue about athletes using cannabis. In this optic, legalization may be a challenge for cannabis in sport, but can also be a fruitful opportunity.