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Marijuana and sports: Canada's legalisation of pot presents countless conundrums for international athletic community

South China Morning Post 標誌 South China Morning Post 19/10/2018 Patrick Blennerhassett
a close up of a green plant © EPA

Canada’s historic step to legalise marijuana for recreational use has further supercharged the spotlight on pot all over the world. Recreational marijuana is legal in nine American states, and a handful of countries have installed various forms of legalisation including South Africa, Uruguay and Georgia. When it comes to the global sporting world and its athletes, things are about to get incredibly tricky.

Multiple international athletic agencies have begun a delicate dance and courtship with the plant, which has some proven medical benefits, the most notable being pain management possibly superior to opioids.

Dozens of athletes have come out in support of marijuana for injury maintenance across North America, putting pressure on various leagues to study the drug more extensively. But until polices change, marijuana will remain the most confusingly banned substance out there.

a person holding a kite while standing in front of a flag © AP

The World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) has cannabinoids (there’s at least 113 different kinds of them found in cannabis, which is most commonly called marijuana) prohibited for “in competition” use but not for “all times”, perfectly encapsulating the oddities when it comes to all the varying stances on the plant.

Wada allows the use of naturally occurring cannabidiol, but prohibits the use of various other forms (hashish, D9-tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC, cannabis and marijuana). The fact that this is technically contradictory policy from Wada is an exclamation point on a raging topic: no one in the athletic community knows how to handle marijuana, let alone define it.

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Anyone stating smoking pot is a performance enhancer will get laughed at, but it’s after the games where cannabis becomes beneficial. Studies have shown it could potentially help with post concussion symptoms, a massive issue in many contact sports.

The jury is still out, but this typifies another quagmire facing the athletic world: to truly find out if marijuana can help athletes with pain management and opioid addiction, it needs to be studied and given to players on an extensive medical level, and to do that, it needs to be fully legal in the country undertaking that study.

a person that is standing in the grass © EPA

Should marijuana for recreational use be legalised in Canada?

Marijuana has been illegal in Hong Kong under the Dangerous Drug Ordinance since 1969, but it’s safe to say many nations will soon follow Canada’s path. A Democratic president in the US with backing from the House and Senate will likely pull the trigger on federal legalisation, and a swathe of other countries are now flirting with legislation or referendums: Jamaica, the Czech Republic, Colombia, Peru, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Iceland and France – to name a few.

Canada’s conundrum when it comes to sports now is how to manage its professional athletes. The country has seven National Hockey League teams, one National Basketball League team, one Major League Baseball team and three Major League Soccer franchises, all of whom bounce around North America on a daily basis. Canada also has hundreds of amateur and Olympic athletes who train locally and compete globally.

Each pro league in North America has its own stance on marijuana, varying in leniency. The NHL is probably the most lax. A hockey player basically has to smoke himself silly before a drug test, and then all he gets is a voluntary referral to a drug-treatment programme.

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The NFL on the other hand seems stuck in how to handle the plant and get away from reprimanding its use, given many retired players have now publicly stated the vast majority of current pros use it regularly.

The real problem now is the various jurisdictional discrepancies across North America that athletes now have to navigate. A Winnipeg Jets player who may use marijuana for pain management, will have to play hockey in Texas against the Dallas Stars, in a state where recreational use is outlawed and medicinal use is highly prohibited. That brings myriad questions and challenges for a slew of bodies in government and the sporting community. Marijuana can stay in someone’s system for weeks, and THC is also activated by exercise use. How’s that for confusing?

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A post shared by Ross Rebagliati (@rossrebagliati98) on Oct 16, 2018 at 4:27pm PDT

So smoking a joint in Manitoba after a game, and then getting on a flight to the US, flying internationally, means that player is on some shaky legal ground if they touch down in a conservative state and do something to attract the police’s presence.

Technically, stepping over the border from Colorado (where pot is legal) into Nebraska (where it’s illegal) with weed is a federal offence that can net you decades of jail time for trafficking. So how does an athlete, who is using marijuana for medicinal, or even recreational purposes in Canada, move around internationally, or even state to state? Safe to say, this is not going to be a smooth transition.

a man holding a sign © AP

Time to shed medieval mindsets as we wage war on marijuana

Canada’s first and most famous International Olympic Committee encounter with marijuana was Ross Rebagliati, a Canuck who won gold for snowboarding at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, and then tested positive for marijuana.

Wada found THC in his blood, but the stripping of his medal was eventually overturned given cannabis wasn’t actually on the banned substance list at the time (it is now, oddly enough, however you have to smoke a lot of it to get disqualified).

How do Canadian Olympic athletes now navigate a landscape where smoking pot at home is as legal as consuming alcohol, to competing in countries where possession of weed, and having it in their system, could get them stripped of their medals or even land them in jail?

China is a great example of how confusing this all is: “marijuana” use or possession is illegal in the country, but China grows boatloads of hemp, which is a variety of cannabis used to make countless products.

a person riding a snow board © AP

In Hong Kong, legalisation seems worlds away, but Canada’s move is undoubtedly a watershed moment for marijuana and the sporting world.

The only question now is who will be at the forefront of exploring new options this plant brings to the table for athletes, and who will chose to stay in the past when it comes to embracing marijuana and its sporting benefits, and the public in general?

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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