It’s understandable that a respected research institution like the University of Colorado would want to study marijuana’s effects on athletic performance and competition. The drug’s widespread, over-the-counter availability nowadays in Colorado, among other states, no doubt increases the likelihood it will turn up in gym bags. Regrettably, even world-class athletes aren’t immune; many of them are still young and impressionable, after all.
What’s troubling is the premise of the pending research. As announced in a press statement from the CU-Boulder campus this week, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience researchers “hope their findings can help inform discussions from doctors’ offices to the governing bodies of sport, which will soon be re-evaluating whether marijuana should remain listed as a ‘banned substance.’”
So, allowing pot use by top-flight athletes — perhaps, even in Olympic competition — is now actually under consideration? They can’t be serious.
A wide range of chemical substances is prohibited for use by the world’s elite athletes. It’s for good reason. The list includes drugs that enhance athletes’ performance unfairly as well as drugs often used in attempts to mask traces of performance enhancers when athletes are tested for them. The substances aren’t all necessarily illegal. Alcohol — as in beer, wine or liquor — is on the list. So is pot, whose recreational use was legalized in Colorado in 2012.
It doesn’t matter if their use is permitted in some places, of course; none of those substances has any place in the workaday exercise regimen of even the average weekend warrior — much less in competition among the world’s best athletes. If for no other reason, for the athletes’ own safety.
As noted in CU’s press release, marijuana is a banned substance under World Anti-Doping Agency rules. Last summer after winning the women’s 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic trials, American sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson tested positive for THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot. As a result, she couldn’t compete in the Tokyo Olympics later in the summer. (The test didn’t necessarily indicate she was high while competing, just that she had used it.)
Richardson, 21, owned up to her poor judgment. She told NBC she used the drug in response to "emotional panic" that set in before the U.S. Olympic trials, when she was informed of her biological mother's death. She said she knew the rules: "I know what I'm not allowed to do and I still made that decision. (I’m) not making an excuse or looking for any empathy.”
Yet, now, we’re being told the international sports world might make way for marijuana use after all.
Hence, CU’s “first-of-its-kind study” of “how legal market cannabis impacts the experience of exercise” — and whether it can “hinder or help athletic performance.” So, researchers are recruiting paid adult volunteers “who already mix cannabis and exercise" — i.e., who work out while stoned. The volunteers will be put through a series of tests.
The CU press office quotes Ph.D. candidate Laurel Gibson, the project’s lead investigator:“Cannabis is often associated with a decrease in motivation. But … we are seeing an increasing number of anecdotal reports of people using it in combination with everything from golfing and yoga to snowboarding and running.”
Well, yes, pot users do indeed attempt all sorts of activities, some hazardous, while high — much like people who have been drinking. Alas, there’s no stopping them from serving as guinea pigs for CU (assuming researchers can ensure their safety).
CU’s press office also notes researchers are curious if the “runner’s high” familiar to avid athletes is caused by naturally produced “cannabinoids” akin to pot. Gibson hopes to shed light on whether pot use can jump-start that process in a way that mimics the runner’s high.
The researchers’ quest raises some fundamental questions.
Notably, if pot truly can, somehow, mimic a runner’s high — chemically propelling partakers across the finish line — wouldn’t that make all the more of a case for keeping it on the banned-substances list in sports?
Then again, wouldn’t pot’s well-established impairment of basic physical acuity pose a threat to athletes’ safety? Not only for the pot users themselves but also for those who compete against them? In the velodrome? Or a pool? On the playing field? Or — we don’t even want to picture it — the uneven parallel bars? If it's illegal to drive drunk or high, you probably have no business swimming or boxing or bicycling or pole vaulting under the influence, either.
We won’t prejudge the outcome of CU’s study, but it’s hard to imagine its findings building a case for removing pot from the sports world’s banned-substances list. If generations of pot use in American society is any guide, it’s unlikely it gives athletes either a physical or mental edge.
Far more likely, pot leaves them as it does everybody else who uses it. Which is to say, as political commentator, entertainer, humorist — and onetime pothead — Ben Stein put it:
“Dope is a drug that makes the user stupider, slower, less risk averse, a far worse driver, a more irresponsible parent or child, a much inferior student. I have been in 12-step programs for 33 years. I hear the stories. I see the results.”