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The Prospects of Cannabis Use in Football and Other Sports

You might not think it by skimming through sports headlines, but cannabis use in football and almost any other sport is ubiquitous. Even prominent footballers sometimes get caught rolling a fatty and punished by their clubs. These cases seldom come to light, though, as no one’s particularly eager to ruin an athlete’s career over a substance that is increasingly seen as no big deal.

High-profile scandals are few and far between, as, for example, the famous French goalkeeper Bernard Lama’s losing his place at the club after testing positive for cannabis in 1997.

Among non-professionals, the number of players who regularly partake of the substance must be staggering. In France, cannabis is among the most widely used illicit drugs: the country ranks fourth in the EU in terms of past-month use. Though it’s still illegal, weed is not hard to come by because it’s being smuggled from North Africa and other regions or grown domestically from cannabis seeds that can be freely purchased online.

With weed’s popularity only growing, especially among young people, it’s not hard to imagine this counterculture seeping into both amateur and professional sports. And this poses a problem for authorities regarding how to deal with the issue. It’s all straightforward when cannabis is seen as a dangerous illegal drug and a gateway to the abuse of harder stuff: there should be zero tolerance for its consumption in general, and an athletic career couldn’t possibly be an exception.

But the attitudes are changing, and often they lead to sweeping reforms – when either medical or recreational cannabis use is allowed. As of now, 18 US states plus Washington DC have legalized adult use, and so did Canada in 2018. Less radical reforms are also underway in some European countries, such as Malta, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, and the EU’s biggest nation, Germany, thinks about creating a regulated cannabis market.

Things get complicated in such ‘green’ jurisdictions – as adult citizens, athletes have the same rights as the rest of the population, but there are also conflicting rules imposed by anti-doping agencies, sports associations, leagues, and clubs.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prohibited the use of cannabis by athletes in 2004 although the reasons for the ban were not very clear. There’s much controversy about whether cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug or, vice versa, makes athletes lose their competitive edge. Many amateurs swear that toking before a jog, a swim, or a game makes them calm and focused on the task at hand or find enjoyment in an activity that would otherwise seem boring. They often describe this state of light inebriation as “the flow” or “being in the zone”.

Professionals, on the other hand, should be able to reach the flow by natural means. Scientific studies have revealed that starting from a certain level, the ability to focus on the game and let go of every other thought (and not the physical talent) is what distinguishes the exceptional from simply great. Champions don’t need a “crutch” in form of marijuana, which could be rather a distraction: studies performed on drivers and airplane pilots have shown longer reaction times and poorer judgment.

Be it as it may, WADA relaxed its stance on cannabis use in 2013 by increasing the threshold for THC metabolites in urine samples tenfold – from 15 to 150 ng/mL. It basically means that you can’t compete while intoxicated but smoking some pot during practices or between competitions is okay.

The push for anti-doping agencies and other sports organizations to rethink their cannabis policies continues as highlighted in 2021 when an Olympic hopeful Sha’Carri Richardson lost her place in the roaster and didn’t go to Tokyo Games. Her sin was smoking a joint on the night before the trials because she needed to cope with the news of her biological mother’s death.

It’s a known fact that many professional athletes use cannabis to deal with mental stress and traumas as well as physical injuries, including concussions. They also smoke weed to relax or ease the pain in aching joints and muscles. Others use it to simply unwind after a match and be able to sleep.

And since more and more jurisdictions allow such medical and recreational use, we may expect that sports organizations will follow suit. Thus, WADA is currently reviewing its ban on cannabis, although its representatives say that whatever the decision may be, the substance will remain prohibited in 2022.

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