Although there is no scientific evidence that cannabis use provides a competitive edge for world-class athletes, those who test positive for the plant will remain at risk of suspension and other punishable measures in 2023.
That’s because cannabis will still be a banned substance at sports events next year after the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) executive committee decided Sept. 23 in Sydney that it will remain on the list of prohibited substances and methods.
The agency was asked in 2021 to review its policies on cannabis following U.S. Olympic Trials champion sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson testing positive in July of that year. The women’s 100-meter dash phenom, who was 21 years old at the time, was banned from competing in her main event during the Tokyo Olympics. She was the favorite for gold.
Since Jan. 1, 2021, cannabis has been classified as a “Substance of Abuse” by WADA that currently carries a maximum four-year ban for athletes.
As it relates to cannabis remaining on the 2023 list of banned substances, WADA’s executive committee endorsed the List Expert Advisory Group’s (LiEAG) recommendation. Responsible for providing expert advice and guidance for the banned substances list, LiEAG has 12 members from nine countries, including three from the U.S.
Since September 2021, LiEAG members “embarked on a full and thorough review of the status in sport of THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis,” according to WADA. The review focused on the three criteria set forth by the WADA code for inclusion of any substance or method on the list, namely:
- It has the potential to enhance sport performance;
- It represents a health risk to the athlete; and
- It violates the spirit of sport (as defined by the code).
Under the code, a substance or method must meet at least two of the criteria to be considered for inclusion on the WADA banned list. While the agency concluded cannabis use remains “against the spirit of sport” across a range of areas, it was less clear which of the other two criteria was met.
“The question of how THC should be dealt with in a sporting context is not straightforward,” WADA Director General Olivier Niggli said in a public statement. “WADA is aware of the diversity of opinions and perceptions related to this substance around the world, and even within certain countries. WADA is also mindful that the few requests for THC’s removal from the Prohibited List are not supported by the experts’ thorough review. We are also conscious that the laws of many countries—as well as broad international regulatory laws and policies—support maintaining cannabis on the list at this time.”
Niggli added that WADA officials plan to continue research on cannabis in relation with “THC’s potential performance enhancing effects, its impacts on the health of athletes and also in relation to perceptions of cannabis from athletes, experts and others around the world.”