Cannabis use, WADA and the Australian sports system

Should cannabis to be considered a “performance-enhancing” drug by the World Anti-Doping Agency? pietroizzo

It has been widely reported that representatives from a group of Australian sporting codes – including athletics, cricket, rugby league and Australian Rules Football – met with the director-general of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), David Howman, to suggest cannabis be removed from WADA’s list of banned substances.

Since WADA was established in 1999 the agency has produced an annual list of prohibited substances for “stakeholders” (their terminology). That list has included cannabinoids since its inception.

In response to the calls from Australian sporting organisations, WADA’s head John Fahey said the agency would consider any submission made by these sporting bodies, and that it may be possible that cannabis could be listed as a banned substance only in sports where it has a demonstrable performance-enhancing effect.

Fahey, acting in line with his previous manifestation as a politician (he is a former premier of New South Wales), made clear he would not pre-empt WADA’s examination of any submission by these Australian sporting bodies.

So what’s going on?

To be listed by WADA, a substance must meet two of the following three criteria:

1) it must be proven to be performance-enhancing

2) it must be harmful to the health of athletes

3) its use must go against the spirit of sport

The suggestion by the Australian sporting bodies is that cannabis provides no proven performance-enhancing effect in their sports.

According to one of the authors of a 2003 review on the performance-enhancing effects of cannabis for the academic journal Sports Medicine: “the intent to use [cannabis] to enhance performance will fail.”

Cannabis use is known to increase heart rate and reduce stroke volume, which will result in diminished performance in most, if not all, sports. Cannabis use also slows reaction times, can interfere with motor and hand-eye co-ordination, and impairs concentration.

A small number of athletes report that cannabis use has a positive effect increasing relaxation and reducing anxiety. But this “positive effect” argument was derived from subjects’ responses to surveys and has not been objectively demonstrated.

Over the past week we’ve seen a flood of Chicken Littles writing comments on news sites suggesting sporting codes were condoning the use of cannabis and that athletes would all immediately become pot-smoking deviants.

But it’s important to note that Australian sporting organisations accept cannabis is potentially harmful to the health of athletes. Indeed, most of these sports control for cannabis use through their illicit drug testing procedures.

Prolonged smoking of cannabis may contribute to respiratory tract infections, bronchitis and lung cancers and use of cannabis has been linked to increased anxiety, panic, restlessness and sleeping disruptions.

If it is not, therefore, proven to be performance-enhancing, then the only remaining consideration – from WADA’s perspective, given banned drugs need to meet two of the three criteria mentioned above – must be whether cannabis goes against the “spirit of sport”.

It is here that WADA has created a rod for its own back. Sports ethicists have debated the justifications for the ban on performance-enhancing drugs for more than 30 years now.

The one thing supporters and opponents both agree on is that the “spirit of sport” is such a nebulous concept as to be almost useless in resolving any argument about whether a substance should be listed or not.

To be clear, there are at least four problems with this concept:

1) the variety of sports covered by WADA is too great to allow for any generalisations. Behaviour that would fit in with the spirit of rugby union wouldn’t fit with the spirit of netball

2) any sport is played at a variety of levels of seriousness, all of which would impose different orientations towards the spirit of sport. What would be acceptable behaviours or practices in elite-level professional sport may not be acceptable in amateur or recreational sport

3) members of different countries, races, ethnic groups and other communities have differing views on the characteristics of the “spirit of sport”. Whose judgement should take precedence when using this criterion to assess a given substance?

4) there are many practices currently permitted in sport that are either performance-enhancing or harmful to athletes – such as the use of altitude chambers, disc wheels, dietary supplements, painkillers, winged keels – and which appear no less likely to contravene the spirit of sport than most banned substances.

Given all of the above, the “spirit of sport” criterion holds little water.

The best way forward?

I’d suggest the following:

  • any substance or practice proven to be performance-enhancing should be listed on a performance-enhancing banned substances and practices list

  • any substance or practice that’s dangerous to the health of athletes should be listed on a dangerous substances and practices list, which would be an extension of the illicit substances list of most codes

  • any sports organisation in any country that wants to ban a given substance or practice should be able to do so, provided it recognises it could alienate its members

  • any sports organisation should also be able to determine penalties for athletes who use substances or practices that are on either the performance-enhancing list or the dangerous substances and practices list

  • and the “spirit of sport” category? We should just forget about that completely.

I suspect we have been sold a pup in WADA – one that has now grown into a voracious, adult Great Dane.

The organisation’s 2010 annual report stated its budget, half of which comes from governments around the world, as US$25m. Those same governments also need to contribute to their own national anti-doping agencies, many of which are growing, from a finite budget.

Few would disagree that WADA served a purpose – at best to clean up sport and at worst to produce the misguided belief that elite level sport is free from performance-enhancing drug-use, and therefore occurs on an even playing field.

It’s also widely held that WADA has produced a set of policies, legal frameworks, governance structures, resources and research documents that could remain useful.

But what seemed to start as a regulatory body made necessary by a variety of anxieties – including illicit drug use and residual suspicions from the Cold War – has become a bureaucratic/political body that imposes its authority over all.

When local sporting leagues such as the AFL and the NRL feel obliged to request a change to the banned substances list to be considered by the WADA committee, I think the bureaucracy has extended its reach way too far.

What I’d actually prefer is that WADA be disbanded, that individual sports organisations – and even global ones such as the International Olympic Committee – set their own rules. Money saved by dismantling the control agencies could then be churned back into increasing sports participation.