It’s been one year since Canada legalized cannabis nationwide in a landmark decision. So why is cannabis still banned for U Sports athletes in-season?
But before we answer that question, let’s take a quick look at the major sports leagues across North America and how they approach cannabis.
The NFL has been notoriously hard-lined when it comes to cannabis use (i.e. Josh Gordon), handing out long-term and season-long suspensions for repeated offences. The NBA is more lenient, with punishments ranging from a US$25,000 fine, to a five game suspension. The MLB still prohibits cannabis, but only tests if they feel like they have reasonable cause. The NHL doesn’t punish players who test positive for cannabis.
According to an ESPN report, 101 of the 123 sports teams in the four major leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) play in places where cannabis is legalized. The CFL, while not one of the big four leagues, is the only major pro league based entirely in Canada and doesn’t test for cannabis.
In terms of university sports, the NCAA also has cannabis on its banned substance list. Violations can result in a suspension, according to the organization’s drug policies.
U Sports’ cannabis ban is a little different than those other leagues. Unlike the NHL, NBA or even the NCAA, U Sports doesn’t choose its own doping policies or sanctions.
Who makes the rules?
U Sports is a signatory on the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP), which is administered by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports (CCES). The CCES is Canada’s anti-doping agency.
“The CCES and U SPORTS work together to protect the integrity of sport and the health of Canadian student-athletes,” said Paul Melia, CCES President and CEO, in an email to The Concordian. “This partnership delivers anti-doping education and a robust testing plan for U SPORTS student-athletes across Canada through the implementation of the Canadian Anti-Doping Program, which is fully compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code and all its International Standards and Guidelines.”
U Sports abides by the CADP, and all sanctions regarding doping violations are based off of that program. In its “Cannabis in Sports Education Kit” the CCES wrote that “In the face of mounting complexity, it is important to remember that in the world of anti-doping, the debate is not complicated. In sport, cannabis is prohibited.”
The CCES chooses which athletes are tested through a variety of factors including an athlete’s history of doping, the physiological demands of the sport or discipline, performance-enhancing substances and their effects on specific sports, and the potential financial incentives of success, such as a pro contract.
The reason cannabis remains on the list of banned substances for U Sports athletes is because the CCES doesn’t determine which substances are or aren’t on its anti-doping list. The organization is a signatory on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)’s Prohibited List. The same list is used for Olympic competition.
Despite Canada’s legalization of cannabis, the CCES abides by international anti-doping standards.
After the legalization of cannabis in Canada, U Sports stated in a press release that, “As a banned substance on the World Anti-Doping Association Prohibited List (which is the same list followed by the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP),) there will be no change to cannabis’ usability for U SPORTS student-athletes.”
For a substance to end up on the WADA’s Prohibited List, regardless of its legality, it has to fulfill two of the three criteria in the eyes of the WADA.
- It has the potential to enhance sport performance
- It represents a health risk to the athletes
- It violates the spirit of sport.
The WADA stated in an email to The Concordian that it does not make public the reasons for which it adds substances to the list.
In the “Cannabis in Sports Education Kit” from the CCES, the organization states that “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.” It adds that habitual use of cannabis presents “the potential for harm.”
Sanctions, suspensions, and substances
Before we go any further, It’s important to note that U Sports’ cannabis rules are far more relaxed than most of its athletic counterparts. First of all, cannabis is only banned for U Sports athletes during the season, meaning athletes don’t receive a sanction for a positive cannabis test result during the off-season. Also, any U Sports athlete that faces a suspension can appeal the decision to a third party arbitrator.
However, any in-season test sample that contains more than 150 nanogram per millilitre (ng/mL) of cannabis metabolite Carboxy-THC would be flagged and might land a U Sports athlete a suspension. That threshold, while not a shield for athletes, is extremely high compared to other athletic and legal thresholds. For comparison, the MLB’s cannabis testing threshold is 50ng/mL and the NFL’s is 35ng/mL.
Since raising the cannabis testing threshold to 150ng/mL in 2013, only five U Sports athletes have been suspended for cannabis violations.
Cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD, is not on the WADA banned substance list, however the WADA warns that “there are no guarantees that the product they are using does not contain trace amounts of THC.”
While athletes have faced suspensions for cannabis testing, the WADA requires that labs not report and that anti-doping organizations not pursue any sanctions against an athlete who was found to have low concentrations of cannabis in their sample.
According to the WADA, “athletes using the substance in-competition will be detected, while the chances of detecting (non-prohibited) out-of-competition use are substantially reduced.”
While the WADA’s cannabis ban, and U Sports testing, is relaxed compared to other athletic leagues, cannabis is still a suspendable violation. All CADP violations are publicly listed on the CCES’ website.
Under the CCES’ anti-doping sanctions, a first violation for presence, use or possession of a banned substance can result in either a two or four year sanction. A non-intentional presence of a banned substance results in a two year sanction.
The CCES releases annual reports that details all anti-doping violations. Between 2003 (the first annual report available online) and 2012, 23 athletes tested positive for cannabis. Out of those 23, the only athletes to receive suspensions were those who tested positive for multiple substances.
What the players think
We asked past, current, male and female U Sports athletes from different sports for their thoughts on the league’s cannabis ban. Athletes spoke anonymously, some saying they were worried that if they spoke about cannabis publicly, they would be singled-out for testing. Here’s what they said.
- U Sports football player: “I believe [cannabis should be unbanned]. Since cannabis isn’t [an illegal] substance anymore and doesn’t enhance performance, I believe that many athletes could benefit from its calming effects. I believe they would benefit athletes stress-wise as well as pain-wise and would limit painkillers. If it’s legal in society and does not enhance performance, there is no reason why it should be banned for athletes, as long as they are not using during games.”
- U Sports field hockey player: “Athletes could definitely benefit from having cannabis unbanned because there are many beneficial uses beyond recreational. Many people in my life use cannabis to relieve pain, anxiety and in order to sleep better. In general, athletes are busy people and are prone to stress, so cannabis could help be a big help. Cannabis is safe to use and is now very regulated just like alcohol which is legal in U Sports.”
- Former U Sports football player: “Do I think there should be a ban? Absolutely not. But at the same time I can understand why the U Sports won’t lift the ban. They would be the first western civilization sports organization to do so, and I don’t think they’re a big enough entity to handle the down sides of lifting the ban. They won’t pull the trigger unless the NCAA is successful with it.”
- U Sports soccer player: “It’s interesting, I find it very similar to alcohol and you’re allowed to drink during the season. From an athlete’s perspective, the act of smoking while you’re competing is kind of dumb. Unless you’re in an individual sport, you’re screwing over your team. If you’re taking it through other forms, edibles aren’t legal yet. I know a lot of athletes that drink and go out with their teams, but I know that smoking during the season is very stigmatized. And for good measure, if you get tested, you’re out.”
- U Sports football player: “I definitely believe cannabis should be banned during the season, but if an athlete wants to consume some in [their] off season I believe that it shouldn’t be a problem and players should be allowed to do so. The only way I could see a player benefiting from cannabis being unbanned is during an injury period and the cannabis manages to eliminate some of the pain felt by the player. I think some players would love to see the ban lifted and have the opportunity to consume cannabis like other consumers in Canada without fearing the consequences of the suspensions athletes receive if they get caught.”
- U Sports rugby player: “I don’t know why it’s banned for U Sports athletes. They have us do an online substance use training [before the season], even after that I’m still not sure why athletes can’t consume weed in particular. It has benefits, it helps with anxiety and sleep. I find it unfair to take away that potential benefit to athletes.”
Graphic by @sundaeghost