The implications of cannabis legalization for athletesPosted on October 10, 2018
The legalization of cannabis in Canada will have significant implications on the Canadian sport system, ranging from anti-doping policy, to athlete and staff safety and wellbeing, to risk management for organizations. In conjunction with its partners, SIRC will be providing insight and resources to support sport organizations in navigating the many issues. This SIRCuit article, in partnership with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), explores the compliance and health issues for athletes at all levels. A webinar on November 21, 2018 will discuss discuss the rights and responsibilities that sport organizations have with respect to Cannabis use by employees, staff and volunteers. Watch the SIRC NewsHub for additional offerings!
On October 17, 2018, the Government of Canada’s Cannabis Act comes into effect, legalizing cannabis use in Canada for adults aged 18 and older in Alberta and Quebec, and 19 in all other provinces and territories. However, for athletes, the decision whether or not to use cannabis still stirs some debate. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the health effects and compliance issues confronting Canadian athletes, from recreational to elite levels.
The health effects of cannabis
Nationally, about 4.2 million (14%) of Canadians aged 15 years and older reported some use of cannabis products for medical or non-medical purposes in the previous three months. More than half (57%) of the users indicated that they used some form of cannabis daily or weekly (Statistics Canada, 2018).
Cannabis contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a chemical that causes the mental and physical effects known as feeling “high.” When cannabis is smoked or vaporized, the effects begin right away and last for at least six hours. The effects of edible cannabis products may begin between 30 minutes and two hours after taking them, and can last 12 hours or longer (Government of Canada, n.d). Not all of the physical, mental and emotional effects of cannabis use are known, but evidence suggests there are both short- and long-term health risks associated with regular use. In particular, people aged 25 and under are more likely to experience harms from cannabis because their brains are still developing. The earlier in life cannabis use begins, the more harm it can do (Government of Canada, 2018a).
On and off the field of play (or in the pool, on the ice, etc.), research suggests cannabis can negatively impact sport performance, jeopardize athlete health and wellbeing, negatively impact relationships, and put the safety of others at risk.
In the short-term, every time cannabis is used it can:
- Make it harder to learn and remember things. After using cannabis, a person may have problems paying attention, remembering or learning new things, and making decisions. This has implications for training and competition, as well as success at school or on the job.
- Affect mood and feelings. Cannabis can make a person feel anxious, panicked, sad, and fearful. Emotional swings and lack of self-regulation can strain relationships with teammates, coaches and support staff – relationships that are critical to success.
- Impair performance. Cannabis can slow reaction times, lower one’s ability to pay attention, and decrease coordination, thereby impacting athletic performance. This is an issue off the field too – using cannabis and driving, for example, can result in car accidents, serious injuries or death (driving while high is illegal – for information on drug-impaired driving click here).
- Affect mental health. Cannabis can trigger psychotic episodes, experienced as not knowing what is real, experiencing paranoia, having disorganized thoughts, and, in some cases, hallucinating.
Regular long-term cannabis use (daily or almost daily, for several months or years) can:
- Damage the lungs. Cannabis smoke contains many of the same harmful substances as tobacco smoke. And like smoking cigarettes, smoking cannabis can damage the lungs and result in coughing, wheezing and other breathing complications.
- Affect mental health. Using cannabis regularly and continuously over time can cause users to experience anxiety, depression, psychosis and schizophrenia. Studies show that stopping or reducing cannabis use can improve these symptoms (Schoeler et al., 2016a and 2016b).
- Result in physical dependence or addiction. It is estimated that one out of 11 cannabis users will become addicted to cannabis in their lifetime. The rate increases to 16% for those who start using cannabis during adolescence and goes up to 50% for people who smoke cannabis daily. Cannabis addiction may have a major negative impact on everyday life, and affect school, work, relationships with family and friends, sport, and other extracurricular activities (Government of Canada, 2018b).
Cannabis and the Canadian Anti-Doping Program
For Canada’s elite athletes, the decision whether or not to use cannabis must also take anti-doping policy into consideration. Despite legalization, cannabis remains a banned substance for athletes who are subject to the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP). Legalization will not affect the status of cannabis in sport and a positive test can still result in a sanction. Despite being banned only in-competition, athletes should be wary of any use as THC is fat soluble which means that it leaves the body slowly and can be detected long after use.
Cannabis remains banned in sport in Canada because the CADP follows the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Prohibited List, which stipulates which substances and methods are banned in sport. The Prohibited List is an independent international standard that is not affected by changes in domestic law – many substances on the Prohibited List are legal products but are banned in sport. In addition, the CCES, which manages the CADP, has a long-standing interest in harmonized and effective anti-doping programs worldwide and works hard to ensure Canadian sport remains compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code.
Supporting positive decision making
We all have a role to play to ensure Canadian athletes, at all levels, make informed decisions about cannabis use.
- Be informed. Understand the new cannabis legislation and the rules of the CADP. Ensure athletes understand the risks for themselves and their teammates, and to their future sport participation. Resources from the CCES and Health Canada are provided below.
- Talk about it. Athletes are encouraged to have discussions with teammates, coaches, and sport administrators about cannabis legalization and how it will affect them. Sport organizations and coaches are encouraged to proactively communicate information about cannabis in sport with their membership.
- Ask for help. If you or someone you know is experiencing negative health impacts or is misusing cannabis, seek help. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction has resources to help athletes with cannabis use problems.
To help stakeholders make informed decisions, the CCES has several useful resources, two created specifically about cannabis.
- The Cannabis in Sport Education Kit contains materials to help coaches, administrators, teachers, and others deliver the message about cannabis in sport to athletes and support personnel. The kit is designed to help protect individuals from inadvertent doping violations, to encourage learning, and to optimize opportunities for success.
- A new web page includes an interactive Cannabis Quiz, a Cannabis in Sport FAQ, more information about medical marijuana, a collection of media releases and advisory notes, and additional references and resources.
- In certain circumstances, athletes may be authorized to use a banned substance (such as medical marijuana) for an illness or condition, with a medical exemption. The Medical Exemption Wizard helps athletes determine their medical exemption requirements, and download the appropriate application forms.
- Athletes can check whether a medication is prohibited with the Global DRO, an online database that provides quick access to information on the status of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Global DRO is available through a partnership between UK Anti-Doping, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), Anti-Doping Switzerland (ADCH) and the CCES.
Health Canada’s Cannabis in Canada information hub provides information about the law, the health effects of cannabis use, and cannabis impairment on the road and at work.
About the Author
Ben Lungo, Communications Officer at the CCES, assists with disseminating important information and messaging to the Canadian sport community. Ben is a University of Ottawa and Humber College graduate who has pursued his love of sport at the professional level, having worked for organizations such as The Ottawa Champions, Volleyball Canada and Pan Am Games.
Sydney Millar, SIRC’s Content Manager, solicits, supports and curates content from researchers, experts and thought leaders from the broad sport and physical activity sector. For almost two decades, Sydney has worked with individuals and organizations across the country promoting the benefits of quality sport and physical activity.
Government of Canada (2018a). Is cannabis safe to use? Facts for young adults aged 18-25. Cannabis Evidence Brief. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Health.
Government of Canada (2018b). Is cannabis safe to use? Facts for youth aged 13-17. Cannabis Evidence Brief. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Health.
Government of Canada. (n.d.). Health effects of cannabis. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/hc-sc/documents/services/campaigns/27-16-1808-Factsheet-Health-Effects-eng-web.pdf
Schoeler T, Monk A, Sami MB, Klamerus E, Foglia E, Brown R, Camuri G, Altamura AC, Murray R, Bhattacharyya S. (2016a). Continued versus discontinued cannabis use in patients with psychosis: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Psychiatry, 3(3):215-25.
Schoeler T, Petros N, Di Forti M, Klamerus E, Foglia E, Ajnakina O, Gayer-Anderson C, Colizzi M, Quattrone D, Behlke I, et al. (2016b). Effects of continuation, frequency, and type of cannabis use on relapse in the first 2 years after onset of psychosis: An observational study. Lancet Psychiatry, Aug 23.
Statistics Canada (2018). National Cannabis Survey, first quarter 2018. The Daily. Available from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/180418/dq180418b-eng.htm