Cannabis use in sports: cheating or a solution?

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The cannabis industry has been on a steady incline over that last few years. With the most recent election, it is becoming increasingly popular due to its new legalization in different states. It has already been legal in California for a few years, and the stigma around the use of cannabis has been changing here and all over the country.

Recently, many retired players from both the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL) have come out to admit to their use of weed throughout their days on the courts and fields. The surrounding controversy stems from the policies put in place by both organizations. Though it has been popular and has become legal in some states in recent years, cannabis still remains on the ban list for both athletic groups. Former players including Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Kenyon Martin of the NBA and Shaun Smith, Ryan Clady and Bo Scaife of the NFL have confessed to the use of cannabis in some way, shape or form.

This is nothing new, and though there is controversy on whether they should, the question here is: Does it provide an unfair advantage to the athletes who use it? In a medical article published in 2018 by the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, a group of doctors investigated the effects of cannabis on the performance and recovery of athletes. The conclusion was that there was no evidence of performance enhancing effects, but they did recognize its promise for relief of chronic pain management. Doctors realized that its main use was to deal with pain. At first glance, this may seem like the end of the discussion. Having said that, in an interview with the Washington Post, Shaun Smith said the following of its effects on him:

“When I smoke, I can focus and actually do the job that I have to do,” he said. “It’s like I’m in the zone. I feel like nobody can stop me when I was out there. It mellowed me out, got me going. It’s the best thing for me.”

Similarly, Matt Barnes said how much it helped him deal with pain. “It relaxed me. It was something that allowed me to sleep easier. It was something that took pain away — because I’m not really big on alcohol or painkillers,” Barnes said in an interview with the Rich Eisen Show this week.

While smoking a joint before a game will most likely not help you play better, it can alleviate pain for athletes. Athletes undergo a very arduous series of games that take a serious toll on their bodies. In addition to having to play games constantly for months, they must train and exercise regularly, and to top it all off, must spend many hours on a bus or plane. Cannabis helps deal with the pain that comes with the physical demand required during a regular season. It provides an unfair advantage for players who may choose not to use it, whether for personal reasons or in compliance with league regulations. Players who choose marijuana over prescribed painkillers are able to reap the benefits of pain relief while avoiding the ramifications of addictive opioids. The use of cannabis may be a solution for the NBA and NFL, who currently prescribe opioids to their players. With the current opioids crisis, the introduction and deregulation of cannabis can be a less addictive solution for athletes.

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