Should marijuana and cannabinoids still be banned for use in sports?

Published 16 February 2017 By: Paul J. Greene

Image of a Marijuana swimmer

Marijuana and cannabinoids (a group of compounds found in Marijuana) have long been considered performance-enhancing substances in sports.  The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) regards the use of marijuana and cannabinoids “In-Competition”[1] by athletes as a serious offense.  Athletes subject to the World Anti-Doping Code who intentionally use marijuana and cannabinoids without prior approval of its use under a medically necessitated therapeutic use exemption face a 4-year ban.[2] 

However, given the recent spate of legalization of marijuana in a number of countries, the question has to be asked: should this position be reviewed and should marijuana still be banned for use in sports.  

This article examines WADA’s current position on marijuana and cannabinoids in more depth.  It also looks at the positions taken by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and their evolving attitudes on the topic in light of shifting pubic consensus.    

Specifically, it looks at:

  • WADA’s and USADA’s position on Marijuana and Cannabinoids;
  • The recent trend towards legalization of marijuana in democratic countries and WADA & USADA’s response;
  • The NCAA’s more progressive approach;
  • Author’s comment.

WADA’s and USADA’s position on Marijuana and Cannabinoids


Under the 2017 WADA Prohibited List the following Cannabinoids are banned for use In-Competition: 

  • Natural, e.g. cannabis, hashish and marijuana, or synthetic Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). 
  • Cannabimimetic, e.g. “Spice”, JWH-018, JWH-073, HU-210.[3]


Reasons given for the inclusion of marijuana and cannabinoids on WADA’s list of banned substances include its ability to be performance enhancing, its potential as a health risk and its use as a violation of the spirit of sport since the use of marijuana and cannabinoids is still illegal in most countries.

According to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA)[4], marijuana and cannabinoids are banned for the following reasons:


  • Performance-enhancement:A common perception of marijuana is that its use impairs physical activity, including exercise performance. While the effects of marijuana can decrease hand-eye coordination and distort spatial perception, there are other effects that can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sport disciplines. Cannabis can cause muscle relaxation and reduce pain during post-workout recovery. It can also decrease anxiety and tension, resulting in better sport performance under pressure. In addition, cannabis can increase focus and risk-taking behaviors, allowing athletes to forget bad falls or previous trauma in sport, and push themselves past those fears in competition.


  • Actual or potential health risk:A number of studies show that marijuana use may cause a variety of health risks. These risks include negative effects on respiratory, cardiac, and mental health. Frequent marijuana smokers can experience respiratory problems including more frequent acute chest illness and a heightened risk of lung infections. Marijuana use raises the heart rate by 20-100 percent shortly after smoking, which can increase the risk of heart attack. Chronic marijuana use has also been linked to mental illness including paranoia and psychosis.


  • Violation of the spirit of sport:Negative values and ethics included in sport, and beyond sport, are considered in this criteria. Due to the illegal nature of marijuana in most countries, the use or abuse of marijuana does not exhibit the ethics and moral judgment that upholds the spirit of sport.[5]


As previously stated, athletes who test positive for marijuana and cannabinoids face a 4-year ban and there are athletes currently serving 4-year bans for its use.  For example, Bulgarian diver Bogomil Koynoshki was recently banned for 4 years ( the ban will run until October 2020)after testing positive for Carboxy-THC .[6]  As another example, Fahad Al Kalva, a Saudi Arabian track and field athlete is currently serving a 4-year ban (the sanction runs until March 2019) for using cannabinoids, though Al Kalva also tested positive for amphetamines.[7] 


The recent trend towards legalization of marijuana in democratic countries and WADA / USADA’s response


In recent years, however, many countries have legalized marijuana; including the United States where eight states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington) and the District of Columbia have now legalized its recreational use.[8]  25 other states have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.[9]

The global anti-doping movement has not ignored what is happening, but to this point has not altered its stance on the banned use of marijuana and cannabinoids and the default 4-year ban for its use In-Competition.

The USADA’s position on the recent legalization movement in the United States is as follows:

Recently, a handful of states, including Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, have passed laws legalizing marijuana for personal, recreational use. These state laws do not change the fact that the United States recognizes marijuana as a dangerous drug, and to possess, manufacture, and/or distribute marijuana is a crime under Federal law.  The Department of Justice plans to continue to enforce the CSA nationwide.  As a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Code, USADA adopts and follows the WADA Prohibited List. Since marijuana is listed on the Prohibited List as a prohibited substance in-competition, U.S. athletes have to comply, irrespective of their State laws.[10]

The one change that WADA did make in response to the recent legalization of marijuana in many countries was to raise the threshold for a positive test so that use by an athlete of marijuana and cannabinoids is no longer considered positive use unless the athlete measures above a threshold (150 ng/ml).[11]  The intent behind the implementation of the threshold was to deem only regular users of pot to be dopers. 



The NCAA changes its position on Marijuana and Cannabinoids


In contrast to WADA’s decision to continue to ban athletes for marijuana use, the NCAA has made the determination that harshly sanctioning athletes for marijuana use no longer makes sense.

The NCAA recently enacted a change to its marijuana policy effective August 2016 and issued the following rationale:

[T]he NCAA has tested for marijuana at its championship events since 1986, [but] its use by student-athletes has remained steady during the past 10 years. The [NCAA] is convinced that this stagnation is due to the fact that NCAA-level testing for street drugs does not provide the opportunity for effective intervention at that level, and the limitations in the NCAA’s ability to engage in effective intervention at the local level are significant. The consequence of this situation is a flawed strategy for the deterrence of street drug use that relies solely on punitive sanction at the national level, which should no longer be considered an effective deterrent, nor an adequate response.[12]

The new NCAA marijuana policy will focus on improved education for athletes, local drug testing by schools for detection and intervention and treatment for users.[13]

Rutgers University in New Jersey has responded to the new NCAA directive and become one of the first colleges to publicly implement a new marijuana policy effective January 1, 2017.[14]  Under Rutgers news policy,

First-time offenders for PED’s and hard drugs face a suspension between 0-10 percent of the season, but students who violate the school’s cannabis ban won’t receive any suspension for the first offense.

Second time offenders for PED’s and hard drugs face a suspension of 10-25 percent of the season while two-time marijuana offenders will only be suspended for 0-10 percent of the season.

Third time offenders for PED’s and hard drugs will be suspended for 30-100 percent of the season while three-time cannabis offenders face a suspension of 10-25 percent of the season. 

Fourth time offenders for PED’s and hard drugs will be dismissed from their teams, but four-time cannabis offenders will only face suspension of 30-100 percent of the season. 

Fifth time cannabis offenders will be dismissed from their teams.[15] 




As the use of recreational marijuana continues to become more mainstream could WADA eventually follow the NCAA’s lead and also determine that the punitive sanction of marijuana and cannabinoid use is a flawed and inadequate approach?

The NCAA regulates only U.S. collegiate sports and its change in policy mirrors the rapidly changing view toward recreational marijuana use in the U.S.

A change in the near term by the Olympic movement seems highly unlikely.  In contrast to the NCAA, the WADA governs the Olympic movement around the world.  Many of the countries that ratified the International Convention on Doping in Sport and the WADA Code are staunchly against the use of recreational drugs.  A change of this magnitude would likely require approval by all of the WADA Code’s signatories.

But it is worth noting that the U.S. led the movement to initially include marijuana and cannabinoids on WADA’s list of prohibited substances and resisted efforts from other nations to keep marijuana and cannabinoids off of it.[16]

Perhaps the NCAA’s latest move on marijuana will one-day lead to a larger kind of global revolution on how recreational drugs are handled by the anti-doping movement.


Related Articles


Paul J. Greene

Paul J. Greene | @greenesportslaw

Paul J. Greene, Esq. is a U.S. based sports lawyer who protects the rights of athletes in disputes, including those charged in anti-doping proceedings. Paul has been recognized by Chambers USA and Super Lawyers as one of America’s top sports lawyers.

  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.