For as long as drug testing for performance-enhancing drugs has been used, cannabis has been on the list of detectable substances. If it is found in the system, more often than not, the athlete will receive a suspension. But is cannabis really a performance-enhancing drug? Should it be so that athletes should incur a suspension for a drug that is not in every circumstance performance-enhancing?
Depending on which way you look at the situation, cannabis may or may not be a performance-enhancing drug, but it is almost always treated as one by sporting commissions. Should we be treating cannabis on a case-by-case basis, rather than always lumping it in the category of being a performance-enhancing drug? It is an interesting question to explore, especially with more and more pro athletes supporting (medical) cannabis.
How does marijuana enhance performance?
The first question to consider is whether or not marijuana enhances performance at all and, if so, in which ways it does. THC works by binding with cannabinoid receptors in the brain, and either mimicking or inhibiting certain receptors. The parts of the brain that THC works with are connected to coordination, short-term memory, problem solving, and learning. Of course, the way it effects each of these parts of a person is different for the different people using it.
For most people, physical coordination will be affected adversely by marijuana because of a light-headed feeling. It is also more likely that cannabis will affect short-term memory in a negative way; essentially, that it will be hard to retrieve short-term memories. However, it is entirely possible that cannabis enhances performance in the areas of problem solving and learning. These parts of the brain are excited under the influence of marijuana, and can therefore making learning and problem solving more productive.
This means that in the areas of creativity or academic work, marijuana is performance-enhancing. It opens the brain to new concepts and new ideas and makes them more recognizable to the person. The person's capacity to solve problems with creative solutions is exponentially increased.
Does it give athletes an unfair advantage?
Given the effects of cannabis on both the body and the brain, it seems more unlikely that athletes will get an unfair advantage from using it. Most sports are in the business of being very physical, requiring agility, speed, and good coordination. Marijuana does not often encourage these things.
However, marijuana affects mood in a very profound way. Marijuana could perhaps be a way to calm nerves before a match, or even between sporting events. There is definitely no denying how much of a mental game sports are, perhaps even more so than a physical one. In this respect, cannabis may give athletes an unfair advantage, and may in fact be a performance-enhancing drug. An athlete who is performing with calmness and clarity is more likely to win a sporting event than an athlete who is physically strong but extremely nervous.
Most of the time, athletes are suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs that make them stronger, faster, and more agile. Marijuana doesn't provide any of these physical benefits, although for some people can provide these benefits mentally and emotionally. A sporting game is a competition of attitudes as well as of physical endurance.
Is it fair to judge?
The issue has been brought to light a while ago by a boxer named Julio Cesar Chavez, who was suspended for 9 months following a drug test that found cannabis in his system. Is it fair that a boxer was suspended for nine months for using something he claims was not assisting in his performance?
It is a touchy subject because there are so many factors to consider. It is unfair to judge someone for using something outside of their professional career if it is not in fact interfering with their career. Basically, we can't tell every athlete that they are not to use any chemical substances whatsoever, in the case that they might be breaching this drug policy. Although they are the rules, they are unfair.
A lack of substantial research into cannabis and how it affects the body and mind might be the reason for this confusion. Until now, we have been far more aware of how chemical drugs affect the body than this natural substance. Perhaps some leniency is in order, or at least discretion to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. If an athlete is using cannabis outside of training and competition time, and that cannabis is not giving them an unfair advantage over other athletes, should they be banned from using it?