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What Legalizing Marijuana Means for Professional Athletes

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There has been plenty of press on the legalization of marijuana. The mere rumor that a new state has as much as considered joining the “Green Rush” that is so quickly spreading across the nation is enough to spawn countless headlines speculating what economic or political implications of such legislation might be. But what hasn’t been as thoroughly explored are the implications that widespread legalization of cannabis could have on a more specific set of people: athletes.

The high induced by marijuana certainly isn’t known to get people off the couch and motivated to exercise. It’s a depressant—it impairs physical activity much more than it excites it. The stereotype surrounding the typical stoner normally doesn’t involve marathon running or impulsive high-intensity workout sessions. So, no wonder press coverage of this trendy little drug has had such little concern for athletes.

But believe it or not, marijuana ranks just under alcohol as a favorite drug of athletes. This second-place rank is typically taken by tobacco in the general population, so perhaps some athletes, typically a health-conscious bunch, see it as a healthier alternative to cigarettes. Most elite athletes probably wouldn’t admit that they use marijuana as much as these surveys suggest. This might have something to do with the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) banning the drug from being used in any kind of event during the athletic season.

This shocks some people. Marijuana doesn’t seem to give an using athlete an advantage over one who doesn’t, much like steroids or other such drugs would. But WADA says it banned the drug on the grounds of it being a risk to personal health and a violation of the spirit of elite sporting. But most athletes don’t share this view, especially as the hastening spread of both legalization and acceptance of marijuana takes its hold on the west.

These social and cultural trends have certainly changed many athletes’ tunes when it comes to using marijuana. It just doesn’t seem in violation of the “spirit” of sporting or as shameful as it used to. Moreover, despite the heated controversy surrounding cannabis research (which gives results that, despite the ingenious efforts of researchers everywhere, don’t warrant much credibility and seldom lend themselves to replication), some medicinal effects have been found in those who consume cannabis-based products containing CBD or its companion cannabinoid, the much more popular and high-inducing THC found in most marijuana.

What are these medicinal effects? Well, cannabis use has been associated with secondary effects involving pain and concussion management. These kinds of effects are, of course, much more useful to an elite athlete than vegging out on the couch or waxing philosophical. The drug may also improve sleep quality, hunger, and management of the many stressors inherent in the world of the professional or serious athlete.

WADA is perfectly justified in its banning of marijuana for reasons of personal safety. There are plenty of associations between cannabis use and paranoia, psychosis, developmental problems, memory degradation, deficits in judgment, and plenty of other undesirable symptoms. Granted, these are found in correlational studies, but so are the ones that claim marijuana has potent medicinal qualities. If we want to assume one is true, we have to assume the other could be as well. Cherry-picking won’t get us anywhere.

Despite the large legalization movements and advances in marijuana’s acceptance, there’s no reason to believe that WADA will take marijuana off of the banned substances list. Research is still iffy, but the drug could offer some advantages to marijuana-consuming athletes over those who chose not to use it. Moreover, it could also harm the users in short-term or long-term ways. Until more dependable information is found, WADA has quite rationally decided that no real actions should be taken to unban it. This keeps the playing field level and elite athletes safe from potential harm.

But these major movements no doubt move athletes and those at WADA toward more thorough and open conversations about the drug and its implications on the athletic world. Maybe as more research is conducted, WADA will reconsider its stance. Or maybe it won’t. Only time will tell.

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