Does Cannabis Give a Competitive Edge?

When Michael Phelps, the most highly decorated Olympic athlete in history, got caught on camera taking bong rips in a well-deserved bout of self-congratulation, television pundits immediately went haywire. Millions of dollars worth of endorsements evaporated. The hero became the villain overnight.

Legendary running back Ricky Williams rushed over 10,000 yards in his storied pro football career, netting the kind of numbers which would ensure consideration for the Hall of Fame – but for the stigma of failed drug tests and multiple suspensions. His numbers would have been even more impressive if he had not been banned by the NFL for the entire 2006 season, just for testing positive for cannabis. These and many other outstanding athletes have drawn fire for deflating the myth that cannabis use turns otherwise talented youth into passive, amotivational miscreants. But could pot use actually improve athletic performance?

The Next Steroids?

Around San Francisco in 2009, it was well known that Giants star pitcher Tim Lincecum nudged off a marked decline in performance after his bust for cannabis possession. T-shirts begging MLB authorities to “Let Timmy Smoke” sold like hotcakes, but the League refuses to budge; to this day, a positive test for cannabis will net a 50-game suspension. Nonetheless, rumors persist of regular cannabis habits of many top players.  At a time when public scrutiny of steroid use hovers near all-time highs, many pro athletes allegedly indulge in bud to kick back from time to time.

Remarkably, at least one group of scientists have claimed that such casual cannabis use – say, as a substitute for alcohol – could give toking athletes an unfair advantage on the playing field. Marilyn Huestis et al claimed in 2011 that cannabinoids could benefit athletes on the field by reducing anxiety and improving mental focus. The World Anti-Doping Agency has maintained cannabis’s prohibited status since its inception, going so far as to strip Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Ross Rebagliati of his medal just days after he won it at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games – because he tested positive for pot.

A Vital Medicine

But while marijuana’s status as a performance-enhancing drug remains debated, its value as a sports medicine is getting less hazy all the time. The same neuroprotective effects which suggest cannabis as an effective preventive treatment against the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and stroke may provide professional football players and other athletes at risk of concussion their best hope of avoiding the horrible fate of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The disease, which has been found in alarming rates among retired football players, causes gradual and irreversible brain damage and is often not diagnosed until after the victim’s death.  In “Marijuana: Gateway to Health,” Clint Werner argues that the NFL should stop prohibiting cannabis and make its immediate use mandatory for all players who may have suffered a concussion.

If Werner and others are correct, Ricky Williams will be vindicated by history for choosing a drug which lowered his risk of degenerative brain disease. But the possible performance-enhancing effects of cannabis may always complicate the debate over which athletes should be allowed to use it and how.

Are you an athlete that uses cannabis? Tell us about your experiences below.

Originally published in issue 6 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE.

Jeremy Daw is a contributor of Cannabis Now Magazine and the author of Weed the People: From Founding Fiber to Forbidden Fruit. After studying English Literature at the University of Texas, philosophy at NYU, and law at Harvard, he embarked on a career of writing about his favorite plant. As an expert in the law, history, and politics surrounding cannabis sativa L., Jeremy provides exceptional insight and analysis for cannabisnow.com.

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