Josh Gordon

MYTH: Cannabis is doping, according to sports

Marijuana possession has brought suspensions or scandals to all-time Olympic medal record holder Michael Phelps, UFC mixed martial artist Nick Diaz, and the Giants’ two-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Tim Lincecum.

These elite athletes live and compete in states where medical cannabis is legal. But their sports’ governing bodies forbid cannabis use, banning the drug either as part of their substance-abuse policy — or classifying cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug.

“You don’t have proteins or sweet potatoes or beets on the banned substance list either, and all those things are performance-enhancing,” retired UFC fighter and medical cannabis advocate Kyle Kingsbury told SF Evergreen. “Cannabis was definitely used among mixed martial artists. It’s kind of a part of the culture just because of how much damage you take, and also from the mental aspect, there’s a lot that goes into how you sleep at night.”

In major US pro sports like the NFL, MLB and NBA, cannabis is banned under these leagues’ substance abuse policies. (The NHL does not include marijuana as a banned substance). The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), whose rules govern the Olympics, Tour de France and other sporting events, goes a step further to classify cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug on the level of steroids or amphetamines.

Wait, marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug?

“I feel it is a performance-enhancing drug because it help with pain tolerance and it helps with recovery,” Kingsbury said.

Certainly MMA fighters and football players need therapies for pain management, considering the hard hits and concussions routinely suffered in these sports. But these sports’ ruling bodies would prefer their athletes to use addictive therapies like prescription painkillers and opiates.

The NFL, whose threshold of testing positive for marijuana is twice as strict as airline pilots, has faced lawsuits from former players whose league-recommended pain treatments got them hooked on opiates.

Each of these prescription medications has a far more dangerous profile of side effects than cannabis. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have confirmed cannabis has a lower risk profile than even alcohol, but pro sports leagues will endorse their athletes using alcohol rather than cannabis.

Not all athletes are on board.

“If I want to have a good time and I drink, I’m going to pay for that severely,” Kingsbury said. “From a physical standpoint, I’m going to be hungover. My body’s going to hurt. It sets me back, it hurts my cardio. Whereas I could alter my mental status with cannabis and I’m going to sleep great and I’m going to wake up feeling refreshed.

“Really, there’s no comparison between the two from an athletic standpoint.”

With the exception of hockey, none of the major US sports tolerates positive marijuana tests among its players, even with a valid doctor’s recommendation. They are either unaware of or unmoved by demonstrated clinical benefits of THC for pain management and stress relief, or topical CBDs for inflammation or arthritis.

And they are unmoved by state laws legalizing cannabis for these symptoms.

As for WADA’s assertion that marijuana is somehow comparable to steroids?

“You could say the same thing about coffee,” Kingsbury said. “Coffee is a plant. It definitely enhances your ability to perform, and yet it’s widely accepted.”

Photo by Bob Leverone/AP