Marijuana in Competition: Medicinal Aid or Performance Enhancer?

Performance Enhancer

The use of performance-enhancing substances has long been a dark issue in the athletic world, from the doping scandal of Lance Armstrong to the steroid use of Jose Canseco and other baseball players. While marijuana has always been a part of this larger conversation, a new argument is beginning to form: should it be considered a medicinal aid or a performance enhancer?

Marijuana has long been a substance railed against in professional and amateur sports alike, and earlier this year four NFL players were suspended for the use of marijuana. The combination of quickly changing laws, evolving public opinion and rapidly advancing medical studies show marijuana might actually have a legitimate place in sport associations such as the NFL.

This all comes to the forefront with the increasing study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. More and more attention is being brought to CTE, and with good reason. It is a progressive degenerative disease often found in athletes that participate in sports with a high occurrence of head and brain trauma. As it progresses, CTE is linked to memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression, depression, dementia and even Parkinson’s disease.

A recent study done by Boston University called attention to the seriousness of this condition with regard to football players. Of the 91 football-playing subjects that were studied, 96 percent were found to have CTE. As it turns out, marijuana could be one of the things to help manage this condition and potentially help prevent deaths.

Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard psychiatrist, wrote an open letter to the commissioner of the NFL last year calling for the organization not to just participate, but to lead the way in research of marijuana and its treatment of CTE. Potential and past lawsuits aside, he noted that the NFL is a large organization that not only has the funds to invest in the study, but almost an obligation to do so for the health of its players.

The other side of the coin remains, though. Where is the line between its use as a performance-enhancing drug and its use as a medicinal aid?

Many athletes have noted the use of marijuana as a performance enhancer, and in fact, the World Anti-Doping Agency bans the use of marijuana in both national and international sports that it oversees. Research into the topic shows that use of marijuana can help decrease fear, stress and even depression, giving the athlete a distinct competitive edge.

Marathoners and extreme runners are adopting the substance due to these enhancement properties. Jenn Shelton, a veteran ultramarathon runner, told The Wall Street Journal, “The person who is going to win an ultra is someone who can manage their pain, not puke and stay calm.” These are all things that marijuana helps with.

Another ultramarathoner, Avery Collins, is very vocal about his use of marijuana to help with running. He doesn’t smoke though, he uses edibles and a marijuana balm for his legs. According to Collins, “If you can find the right level, [marijuana] takes the stress out of running.”

There is obviously a balance that needs to be struck between the two arguments. Should medical benefits outweigh fair competition? Or should specific sports be given special considerations? Time will tell as state regulations continue to ease and marijuana becomes less vilified, but one thing is definite: deadly diseases like CTE need to be dealt with, and support needs to be given to any potential solution.

Josh Browning is a writer and editor based in Washington and has a background working in the technology, education and creative writing fields. He earned his MA from Western Washington University and his BSS from Ohio University.

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