Cannabis has had a dubious history in the world of professional sports. It has been the cause of Olympians being stripped gold medals, lowered the draft stock of players, and inspired “Saturday Night Live” skits depicting athletes as stoners. Despite its complicated relationship with regulatory bodies that prohibit its use, the plant maintains an important role with many athletes, either in their training and recovery or their pain management once they’ve retired. According to the American Journal on Addictions, cannabis is the second most widely used drug among athletes after alcohol.
As public sentiment toward cannabis shifts and laws relax nationwide, the vast majority of sporting organizations continue to prohibit the use of cannabis—but things are beginning to change. Cannabis health benefits are gaining more media attention, and buzzwords like “microdosing” are changing public opinion about the relationship between cannabis and athletic performance. More and more athletes are emerging as high-profile advocates for sensible cannabis laws and are fighting to bring awareness to the plant’s pain management properties. The traditional position of cannabis as an illicit substance in sports is being challenged, but its long, contentious history places hurdles in the path toward progress.
Decades of denial and persecution
For decades, athletes have come under fire for cannabis use—losing millions in potential earnings, and sometimes their careers, in the blink of an eye. When NFL Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, thought to be a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 1995 draft, failed a drug test for cannabis, he dropped to No. 12 overall. Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati was briefly stripped of his gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics and held in a Japanese jail cell for testing positive for cannabis before it was even included on the list of banned substances. While his gold medal was eventually returned to him, his career was essentially over. “Cannabis back then was seen as being for losers and lazy stoners,” he recalled in an interview last year with The New York Times. “The big corporate sponsors didn’t want to sponsor me. I became a source of entertainment, a joke. I went from hero to zero overnight.” Over a decade later, Olympic swimming star Michael Phelps found himself at risk of losing endorsements and ultimately incurring a three-month suspension after a photo of him inhaling cannabis from a pipe was published in a British newspaper in 2009.
Since its inception in 1999, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has included cannabis on its list of banned substances. Several Olympians have faced sanctions, had their medals seized, and experienced public scorn due to alleged cannabis use. WADA has included cannabinoids on its Prohibited List since 2004, considering them to meet at least two of the three criteria: (i) it has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance; (ii) it represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete; (iii) it violates the spirit of sport. Today, cannabinoids are still prohibited in-competition, with the exception of cannabidiol.
What will it take to change misconceptions about cannabis?
Marcel Bonn-Miller, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine who works with pharmaceutical companies and nonprofit groups doing cannabinoid research, concedes that studies of the effects of cannabis on athletes are sparse, due, in part, to limited funding. Bonn-Miller, who is conducting studies on the use of cannabinoids among former professional football players, explained in a New York Times article titled, “Turning to Marijuana for the Runner’s High and More” that there are two potential reasons for using cannabinoids. “One is to enhance your ability to train,” he says. “The other is recovery oriented.”
According to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the annual decision to include or not include a substance on the Prohibited List is based on current scientific and medical knowledge and the input from all stakeholders during a yearly consultation process. As legalization allows for more research on the subject, an increasing number of studies are suggesting the health benefits of cannabis outweigh possible concern.
As sentiment—among athletes, scientists and the public—shifts, regulatory agencies will be the last hurdle before professional athletes can openly embrace the medicinal benefits of cannabis. And for that to happen, there will need to be overwhelming scientific evidence of health benefits, something that could take years to gather. To some, the reasons for continued prohibition are entrenched more in stigma than in science, so even evidence may not be enough.
Athletes overcoming the cannabis stigma
With few exceptions, the sports world does not embrace the use of cannabis. In 2016, Sports Illustrated dedicated its cover story to former NFL running back Ricky Williams, dubbed “America’s most infamous stoner athlete,” and his relationship with cannabis. Williams says he lost between $5 million and $10 million in salary and endorsements when his NFL career stalled out due to four failed drug tests. Now he is working to make that back and then some by becoming the face of cannabis-and-sports. So far he’s founded Power Plant Fitness and Wellness, a cannabis-friendly gym in San Francisco, with 420 Games creator Jim McAlpine.
Retired athletes have been in a unique position to come forward about their previous use of cannabis while playing in professional leagues. Eben Britton, a former NFL offensive lineman who estimates that over 50 percent of NFL players currently use cannabis, revealed that he used cannabis before three NFL games in an interview with the New York Post in 2016. “NFL games I played stoned were some of the best games I ever played,” he recounted. “Cannabis cements your surroundings.” He also used cannabis to relieve “psychological distress or sciatica or pain in my shoulders.” Today, Britton is a member of the Doctors of Cannabis Regulation NFL steering committee and a board member of Athletes for CARE, a group that advocates for athletes on various issues of health and safety including the use of cannabis as medicine.
Some former athletes have taken up cannabis later in life as a natural way to manage pain. “When any athlete gets old, every injury you have sustained seems to resurrect,” former NBA player and coach Don Nelson, who now grows cannabis for himself and credits Willie Nelson for getting him into smoking. “It helps me deal with the pain without pain pills, and helps with that stress,” he explained to The Times in 2018.
A new generation openly embracing cannabis
Although recreational cannabis is now legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia, athletes coming under fire for their cannabis use is not a thing of the past—but now they’re empowered to be more vocal. When MMA fighter Nick Diaz received a five-year suspension after testing positive for cannabis, Ronda Rousey made clear her opinion on cannabis bans in the UFC. “I’m sorry, but it’s so not right for him to be suspended five years for marijuana,” she declared at a press conference. “I’m against testing for weed at all. It’s not a performance-enhancing drug. And it has nothing to do with competition. It’s only tested for political reasons.”
Despite the continued pushback and the fact that cannabis use among professional athletes remains a hotly debated subject, more and more in the athletic community are embracing it. In 2016, professional skier Tanner Hall became the first active athlete to be sponsored by a cannabis accessory company. Colorado pro ultramarathoner Avery Collins runs with a jersey emblazoned with sponsorship logos from cannabis companies like Mary’s Medicinals and Roll-Uh-Bowl (and even uses cannabis during many of his 100- to 200-mile training runs) but still can’t use cannabis during official events due to WADA guidelines. “If you can find the right level, cannabis takes the stress out of running,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2015. “And it’s a post-race, post-run remedy.” So while cannabis is helping today’s athletes make strides in their performance—whether they’re optimizing their ability to train or managing pain during recovery—what we’re witnessing from the other side are baby steps as regulations and policies catch up.