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How Many Elite Athletes Use Cannabis?

Former NBA superstar Kenyon Martin recently estimated that around 85 percent of all players in the world’s top basketball league used cannabis during his time as a pro, while retired NFL ace Martellus Bennett says the number is probably even higher in professional American Football – a sport known for its hard knocks.

Yet, as the exclusion of sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson from this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo highlights, elite athletes are still penalised for using cannabis. The leading anti-doping authorities continue to erroneously classify it as a performance-enhancing drug of abuse.

Despite this, there is a clear trend towards increased cannabis use among elite athletes, which is why several sports have taken measures to reduce the penalties for smoking weed.

Why Do Athletes Use Cannabis?

Being a professional sportsperson places a huge strain on both the body and mind, so it’s hardly surprising that many athletes use cannabis to deal with physical pain, treat inflammation or simply cope with stress. American football players in the NFL, for instance, have been campaigning for several years for the league to permit the use of cannabis as an alternative to opioids and anti-inflammatory drugs like Toradol, which have been routinely administered by team doctors for decades even though they are addictive and can cause irreparable internal damage.

Since Eugene Monroe of the Baltimore Ravens first challenged the NFL to change its stance on cannabis in 2016, a large number of players have come out in support of the idea, resulting in the league finally modifying its rules in 2020. Under the new policy, athletes who test positive for cannabis will no longer be suspended, although punishments will still be handed out to those who use weed excessively.

A similar change was introduced in Major League Baseball in 2019. The sport’s governing body removed cannabis from its list of “drugs of abuse,” thereby allowing players to smoke weed instead of relying on opioid painkillers to help them through injuries. The policy change came after the tragic death of Los Angeles Angels player Tyler Skaggs, who had high levels of opioids like oxycodone and oxymorphone in his system when he died.

Likewise, professional rugby players put their bodies on the line week after week and often end their careers with extensive physical damage. While the sport is played in several countries where cannabis is illegal, players can use CBD, as this cannabinoid has been exempted as a substance of abuse by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Therefore, while athletes competing in the sport can’t use cannabis, many turn to CBD as an alternative to opioid painkillers.

In a recent interview, Jerome Kaino – who won two World Cups with the New Zealand All Blacks – explained that regular painkillers left him with serious gut problems and credits CBD with helping to prolong his career by reducing joint pain and inflammation after matches and heavy training sessions.

Similarly, former Scotland and Saracens player Jim Hamilton explained that several teammates became addicted to opioids. He now relies on CBD to deal with the enduring pain he experiences despite having retired from the game several years ago.

Will Athletes Ever Be Allowed To Use Cannabis?

As previously mentioned, both the NFL and the MLB have relaxed their stances towards athletes using cannabis in recent years. The same goes for the National Hockey League (NHL) in North America, which no longer suspends players who smoke weed. At the same time, the Nevada State Athletic Commission recently voted to allow boxers and other combat athletes who use cannabis to continue competing.

However, many sports continue to apply WADA protocols and therefore maintain a blanket ban on cannabis use. Olympic athletes, for instance, are suspended if they test positive for cannabis, while football players competing in FIFA accredited matches can also be banned if they fail a weed test. It’s also worth pointing out that recreational cannabis is illegal in the UK, so Premier League footballers are unlikely to be given the green light to start smoking joints any time soon.

That said, it is thought that a large number of athletes do actually use cannabis, despite the risk of suspension. This is rarely highlighted, as the Premier League has a policy of not publicly naming those players that test positive for weed in an attempt to protect its brand and avoid negative publicity. As such, clubs can claim that their players are injured when, in fact, they are serving a multi-game ban for cannabis use.

Nevertheless, some leading athletes within world football have previously admitted to using cannabis, including former England striker Ian Wright and Roberto Mancini, who recently led the Italian national team to victory in the European Championships.

What’s certain is that cannabis use among elite athletes is not rare. As an increasing number of sportsmen and women begin to publicly call for a change of policy, it seems only a matter of time before the authorities allow the use of cannabis at all major sporting events.

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Ben Taub