Photo Via Upsplash user Jan Zwarthoed

For those old enough to remember the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan, you may also recall when Ross Rebagilati made history — twice. He was the first athlete to win an Olympic gold medal for Men’s Snowboarding and was subsequently disqualified and stripped of his medal after a drug test revealed trace amounts of THC in his system. This event and the media frenzy that followed made Rebagliati somewhat of a cultural icon at the time. Similar Shi’Carri Richardson now, following her recent suspension from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) ultimately overturned the decision, returning the gold medal mainly because THC was not included on the list of banned substances in sport at the time. By 1999 however, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) placed all-natural and synthetic cannabinoids, except for cannabidiol, on their banned substance list. Substances included in WADA’s prohibited list must meet three conditions: does it enhance performance, is it dangerous for the athlete, and is it against the spirit of good sport?

The Performance enhancing debate

When cannabis was first categorized as prohibited, there was widespread agreement within the IOC that cannabis use can put the user in a relaxed and positive state of mind, which one could interpret as a performance-enhancing property. WADA has similarly defended cannabis’s place on the banned substances list, arguing that it can relax athlete’s muscles, giving them an unfair advantage in pain reduction and recovery. Ironically, cannabidiol (CBD) isn’t banned despite being one of the most important compounds in cannabis’s effect on muscle relaxation, pain and anxiety.

Since 2013, the rules around cannabis have changed slightly. Athletes are now allowed to have up to 150 nanograms per millilitre (ng/ml) of cannabis in their systems. The prior threshold was 15 ng/ml. In 1998, Rebagilati had 17.8 ng/ml in his system. This means athletes may have some small level of cannabis in their system while competing. However, the IOC continues to ban cannabis use before, during, and after the games. An athlete caught with a celebratory joint even after competing could risk disqualification, getting stripped of their medal or suspension.

Due to the global stage of the Olympics, indulging is especially risky. Athletes must abide by the country’s laws in which they are competing. Cannabis use at the upcoming Tokyo games can be penalized by up to five years in prison. The IOC states that part of the reason cannabis remains on their banned substance list is to respect the law. They argue this type of scenario impacts the spirit of good sport.

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How legalization has influenced cannabis’s banned substance status

These days, many countries have legalized cannabis, and the global perception of cannabis use, in general, has shifted positively. In turn, many people in the world of elite sports want to reconsider its place on WADA’s banned substances list. Athletes for CARE is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving global health, safety, and quality of life for all athletes. In 2019, they started a petition to remove cannabis. They praise the therapeutic and natural health benefits of cannabis use, claiming that WADA owes it to their athletes “in keeping with WADA’s values of ethics, fair play and honesty,” to allow them access to “this gentle but effective plant medicine.” Unfortunately, this petition has not gained much momentum in overturning the IOC or WADA’s evaluation of cannabis in competition.

The 2021 World Anti-Doping Code Prohibited List, effective January 1, 2021, still lists cannabinoids as prohibited in competition.

Removing cannabis from the banned substances list in the world of elite sport seems inevitable. Although, this year will not see any changes. The summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, is scheduled to commence on July 23, 2021.

For more information or to find ways to advocate, visit Athlete’s for Change, or sign their petition.