The Olympic Spirit and the Holy Smoke

It is almost a tradition that at least every four years when the Olympics take place the discussion on doping becomes a trend. With all of the hype around the Rio Olympics there have also been stories about athletes daring to admit that they use, at least occasionally, cannabis.

Since the topic of cannabis is not as taboo as it used to be, there is a lot of talk whether cannabis is a performance enhancer or if it's just used for recreation and medical purposes. While cannabis is not known to have performance enhancing properties (except possibly in the long-distance running community), there is a debate about whether or not cannabis should be included in the list of banned substances for athletes.

Some say that cannabis makes athletes perform worse when high, as it slows down the heart. On the other hand, some people anecdotally support the idea that they perform better at certain sports when they are high. Regardless, there isn't enough scientific evidence to prove whether cannabis changes an athlete's performance for better or worse. However, many agree that cannabis does alter one's mental state, and that might have a positive effect on athletes since the mental aspect of training plays a crucial role in their performance.

It is obvious that the moral and legal aspects of this matter often overlap each other, especially in decisions of organizations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA). They have certain goals and interests to serve and can also be the judge and jury about which substances should be permitted.

When the IOC banned cannabis, the plant and its potential was not socially acceptable and it was mostly known as an illegal, dangerous drug. As a result, cannabis was considered against the "spirit of sport". But as times, laws, usage, and education about cannabis have changed, it seems that the performance enhancing potential of marijuana is not something to worry about, at least not in the same way as steroids, growth hormones, and other performance enhancing drugs.

If the property of cannabis to reduce anxiety and fear and help one focus is considered performance improvement, then yes, it could be considered to enhance something. Studies have shown that marijuana helps athletes to sleep and recover after a hard day's workout. For some that means more endurance, and many athletes claim that consuming cannabis before training helps them feel less pain.

But does WADA really care for the same reasons? Is the "spirit of sport" one of WADA's concerns? The answer is no. WADA is concerned about safety issues and given some recent changes, they do not see cannabis as a safety issue at all. In 2013 they quietly changed the threshold for a cannabis positive test from 15 ng/ml to 150 ng/ml.

This means that an athlete cannot be disqualified for having small traces of THC in the bloodstream. They must be high at the time of the test, and to reach 150 ng/ml an athlete has to be really high. So WADA's changes are treating cannabis similar to alcohol, basically saying it's ok for athletes to consume on their own time but they don't want anyone showing up to competition drunk or stoned.

WADA spokesman Ben Nichols made it clear that athletes are free to smoke as much as they want outside of competition and that they just have to avoid cannabis consumption during the period of competition. In simple words, athletes can use cannabis for recreational purposes or they could use medical cannabis in small doses, as long as they still stay between the legal limits.

Although cannabis is still included on the Prohibited List of WADA, the prohibition is not a general one. It is under certain conditions that the use of it is not allowed. Cannabis is banned only for use "in competition" - if a positive test for the drug does not take place at the time of performance then it's not against the rules.

So...Olympic athletes...party your face off in Rio and keep up the legend of the Olympic Village. You'll be happy to know that it's ok to smoke a little bit and it won't destroy your career.