On June 19th, Sha’Carri Richardson qualified for her first Olympics by blazing to a 10.86 second time in the 100-meters. This lightning-fast gallop made her the best prospect for a gold medal in the sport since Gail Devers in 1996. Two weeks later, however, the excitement turned to disappointment, as Richardson was suspended for failing a drug test and, effectively, banned from the Olympics. The drug in question? Cannabis.
Like many, we were befuddled by this turn of events. What impact could cannabis have on sports performance? After all, we’ve sampled many cannabis products over the years, and we’re not in any better shape (much to our significant others’ disappointment). But this is the Olympics. They’ve been going since 776 BC – surely, the Olympic committee must know what they’re doing. Or do they?
After doing some research, we discovered the Olympic rules on “Prohibited Substances” are set by the World-Anti Doping Agency (or “WADA”). As much as we’d love to blame U.S. bureaucrats, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency merely aligns to these WADA rules, which – fun fact – had banned caffeine up until 2004. No wonder Michael Phelps started his gold medal run in 2004…
For a substance to make WADA’s naughty list, it must meet at least two of three criteria: (i) a health risk to athletes, (ii) the potential to enhance performance, and (iii) a violation of the “spirit” of the sport. To make the case against cannabis, WADA cites a 2011 paper from Sports Medicinewhere it purportedly fails all three criteria.
With our high school science training fresh in mind, we decided to go deeper. Surprisingly, the above paper was not a standalone study conducted for this specific purpose, but instead a general review of past papers. To assess health risk, for example, the authors made such simplistic statements as “cannabis can impair essential technical skills that may also increase the probability of accidents and injuries” or “athletes who smoke cannabis in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased taking.” To assess performance enhancement, the authors seemingly reverse course, saying that, despite being technically impaired and a danger to themselves, athletes have competitive advantages from feeling less anxiety and stress as well as greater focus. To support this, the authors surprisingly cite “anecdotal evidence from blogs and hotlines”while even admitting “much additional research is needed to determine the effects on cannabis on athletic performance”.As to the last criteria, we remain lost as to how cannabis violates “the spirit of the sport” – how can something so vague be used as a critical standard?
It should be noted also that the Olympic standards do not align with those in other highly notable sports leagues. To wit, the four major U.S. pro sports leagues have instead relied upon recent scientific data as a basis for liberalizing cannabis policies, focusing less on testing and punitive measures (suspensions/bans) and instead more on treatment options, if appropriate (similar to alcohol abuse). To this point, a 2018 paper published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicinedid a review of all the literature around cannabis and sports performance before definitively concluding “although cannabis use is more prevalent in some athletes engaged in high-risk sports, there is no direct evidence of performance-enhancing effects in athletes.”
But we are not scientists, and we don’t believe athletes like Richardson (or anyone else) should be exempt from the rules. We eat our own cooking here too, being subject to tons of regulations to invest in legal cannabis. But, in a free society, we should also thoughtfully and intelligently question the rules to which we are bound, acknowledging that historical momentum (or worse, bias and ignorance) are never good justifications for rules. So wrapping up, when it comes to cannabis and sports, let us embrace the Olympic motto: “Citius – Altius – Fortius”, or “Faster – Higher– Stronger.”
Thanks for tuning in, and until our next update, please stay safe and healthy.
Mike, Kip, and Austin
Co-Managers, Presidio View Capital