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The First CBD Olympics Stirs Up Cannabinoid Controversy

The First CBD Olympics

This was the first Olympics to allow athletes to use CBD for their physical and mental health. But how will it be remembered?

When the World Anti-Doping Agency formally changed its rules in 2017 to permit CBD use by athletes, it was seen as a cause for celebration. Article after article was written, highlighting athletes in just about every field that were using CBD for pain, anxiety, sleep, and recovery. 

To be completely accurate, the first official CBD Olympics was actually the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, but because WADA’s new rules on CBD had literally gone into effect weeks before the games, most athletes hadn’t had a chance to take advantage of the substance yet.

So this year’s Olympic games were gearing up to be significant in cannabinoid history. In the intervening years since the rules changed, athletes have jumped into the CBD industry. We’ve seen multiple athletes start their own CBD companies, while others have become brand ambassadors.

As the games got closer, CBD brands were ready to cash in on their connections to high-profile Olympic athletes like Megan Rapinoe (women’s soccer) and Devon Allen (men’s track and field). 

Then something unexpected happened which completely shifted the narrative. 

Track and field star Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for THC and was disqualified from competing at the upcoming Olympics. 

And suddenly, the optics of (mostly white) CBD brand ambassadors touting the advantages of a cannabinoid for their athletic performance took on a whole new look. The tension had obviously been building because, when Forbes published an article that focused on Megan Rapinoe’s CBD use last week, the internet just about lost its mind.

To be clear, it wasn’t so much anything she said in the article. In fact, this really isn’t about Megan Rapinoe as an individual at all (who has been vocal in her support of Richardson and about the inequity of allowing CBD while banning the rest of the cannabis plant in sport). 

The tension had obviously been building because, when Forbes published an article that focused on Megan Rapinoe’s CBD use last week, the internet just about lost its mind.

Rather, it’s simply become impossible to ignore the fact that some people are benefitting in multiple ways from cannabis, while others are being penalized. And race continues to be a major factor in who benefits and who doesn’t.

So how does WADA continue to justify its ban on THC?

To understand this, you have to go back to a paper that WADA published in Sports Medicine in 2011. 

Firstly, they argue, athletes who use it may put themselves in danger by slowed reaction times or loss of executive function. Secondly, anecdotal evidence and some animal studies suggest that cannabis may be performance-enhancing. Thirdly, they argue, athletes are role models and cannabis use violates the spirit of sport.

The Michigan Health Lab (at the University of Michigan) recently waded into the topic (and WADA’s logic) with pain-management expert Kevin Boehnke, Ph.D. Boehnke points out, first, the contradictory nature of points one and two. How can a substance be performance-enhancing if it slows reaction time? 

But it’s WADA’s third reason that Boehnke highlights:

“Reason three appears to be tied to the War on Drugs policies, which criminalized cannabis and punished people for using or promoting it. This last reason is especially troubling, as these policies pushed a false narrative of extreme cannabis-related harm and were enforced in incredibly racist and societally damaging ways.”

Boehnke also points to the convenient hypocrisy of the organization’s stance on cannabis vis-a-vis a substance like alcohol:

“It also doesn’t quite square with current athletic partnerships with alcohol companies, which one might argue violates the spirit of sports due to the known dangers of alcohol (which substantially exceed those of cannabis.)”

The other question is whether the rules on THC could be more nuanced than they currently are.

A recent article in Scientific American, which delves more deeply into the scientific arguments behind THC and sport, highlights other sports organizations, like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which has relaxed its stance on THC. 

Following the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) rules, the UFC now “permits the use of cannabis except when an athlete intends to use it for performance enhancement. Under those rules, a case such as that of Richardson, in which the substance was used to deal with grief, would not have led to a ban.” 

And rather than relying on a urine sample alone, the UFC also requires additional evidence, such as behavioral signs of being under the influence, on the day of the fight. 

These decisions are not going to be as easy to make as a positive drug test, but they are, one might argue, at least humanizing.

However WADA decides to regulate individual cannabinoids, the debate on cannabis use in sport will continue well past this moment. But the world’s first CBD Olympics will probably be remembered more for the continued ban on THC than for the triumph of the newly allowed CBD. 

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