Cannabis in Sport: What Legalization Means for Canadian Athletes

With the Government of Canada's move to legalize cannabis it is important to remember that the status of cannabis in sport for athletes subject to the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP) has not changed. Cannabis continues to be a prohibited substance and a positive test can still result in a sanction.
 
The CADP adheres to WADA’s Prohibited List, which is an international standard under the World Anti-Doping Code. So, despite Canada’s position on cannabis, the global anti-doping community has maintained cannabis on the Prohibited List.
 
Cannabis is just one of many substances which are legal in Canada, yet prohibited in sport. One exception to this is cannabidiol (CBD). CBD oil is a non-psychoactive derivative of cannabis which was removed from WADA’s prohibited list in 2018. However, athletes should exercise caution as CBD oil often still contains some concentration of the banned substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Therefore, the use of CBD oil is at an athlete’s own risk.
 
The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport has put together a number of resources to help parents, coaches and athletes navigate the use of cannabis in sport. We have included a few frequently asked questions below, however, for a comprehensive list please refer to the CCES Cannabis in Sport web page
 
Why are cannabinoids prohibited?
 
All prohibited substances are added to the Prohibited List because they meet two of the three following criteria:
Use of the substance has the potential to enhance performance;
Use of the substance can cause harm to the health of the athlete; and
Use of the substance violates the spirit of sport.
 
While the CCES does not view cannabis as particularly performance-enhancing, we do have anecdotal accounts of athletes using it therapeutically with the intent to improve performance or recovery by managing pain, stress, or anxiety.
 
While cannabis has therapeutic uses, habitual use or abuse presents the potential for harm, especially for younger athletes. Impairment during competition presents a liability to the safety of the athlete and their competitors.
 
Finally, given that cannabis is prohibited in competition, we encourage athletes to demonstrate respect for their teammates, their opponents, and their sport by competing clean, clear, and sober.
 
What does cannabis’s status as a threshold substance mean? 
 
The threshold means that if cannabinoids are detected in an athlete’s sample below a specific concentration, it will not be reported and a violation for presence will not be asserted. This threshold is not meant to permit frequent, habitual, or in-competition use. Despite the threshold, positive tests for cannabis are still frequent. 
 
What does this mean for legal medical marijuana?
 
Athletes should always work with their physicians to explore non-prohibited alternatives to prohibited medications. Where no alternative is available or effective, or a physician determines that cannabis or a cannabis derivative is the most appropriate course of treatment, athletes should apply for a medical exemption. Refer to the Medical Exemption Wizard to determine your requirements.
 
Athletes should be aware that there is no guarantee that a medical exemption will be granted. 
 
 
How long does it take for THC to clear my system?
 
There is no simple answer for this. Different strains of cannabis have different concentrations of THC. This means that consuming the same amount of different strains can result in differing doses, and therefore different clearance times and different concentrations shown in a drug test. 
 
THC is fat soluble, which means that it can be stored in the body for a long period of time and released slowly, although not consistently, depending on an individual’s metabolism. Finally, frequency of use is another factor. Regular users will have longer clearance times than casual or infrequent users.
 
How can athletes minimize the risk of a doping violation? 
 
As with all prohibited substances, athletes can avoid violations by abstaining from cannabis use during their athletic careers. Aside from abstinence, there is no way to entirely avoid the possibility of a violation; however, athletes may be able to reduce their risk with the following actions: 
 
Consider medical alternatives to medical marijuana;
If medical marijuana is a necessary therapy, apply for a medical exemption as necessary;
Ensure that non-medical consumption is not habitual or abusive;
Ensure that consumption is outside of a competition period; and
Ensure that consumption is a minimum of 30 days before the start of a competition period.
 
Individual clearance times and the concentration of THC may vary, so this approach to preventing an anti-doping rule violation is not a certainty.
 
The CCES Drug Education for Team BC is Managed by SportMedBC.  For more information about the CCES on-line program, in-person education, or resources related to anti-doping and ethical sports participation contact:
 
Philippe Saucier
Team BC Medical Manager
604-294-3050 extension 104