Pot is a banned substance in sport despite little evidence it enhances performance

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During his lengthy figure skating career, Dylan Moscovitch had to learn how to deal with immense pressure.

He also had to deal with the physical rigours of the sport. He navigated both successfully, retiring earlier this year after a career that included multiple podium finishes, Canadian championships and an Olympic silver medal.

There were lots of things Moscovitch did (all legal) during his career to gain a physical and mental edge.

“I don’t think I would make it through a program,” Moscovitch laughed when asked if he ever contemplated skating high.

“It was talked about — but I don’t think athletes in my sport thought marijuana would be a performance-enhancing drug. Alcohol is legal. Alcohol is permitted. I think a lot of people thought it was along the same lines.”

Moscovitch has stepped away from competitive skating and moved on to the next chapter of his life. And even though recreational cannabis is now legal in Canada, he still believes acknowledging or promoting its usage can damage an athlete’s reputation.

“I think it would taint what I’ve done and probably change people’s view of me as an athlete and a person,” he said.

Use not consistent with elite athletics

Moscovitch says he never saw cannabis use being consistent with elite athletics.

“When you compete at a high level, you have to see yourself as a role model and you have to behave accordingly. And for younger generations, it’s important to set the tone for them so they understand what it takes to be successful. There is a weight on your shoulders that you have to adhere to those types of views.”

Since recreational cannabis became legal in Canada last month, many sectors of society have had to define rules that govern interaction with the substance.

Police forces across Canada, for example, have come up with different directives for how close to a shift an officer is permitted to consume cannabis. The Canadian Forces also had to come up with its own set of rules.

Jamie Strashin looks at how pro sports leagues are handling legalized pot in Canada:

CBC Sports’ Jamie Strashin discusses how the major sports leagues will handle legalized cannabis in Canada.4:58

Canada’s amateur or high-performance athletes face their own rules. Cannabis is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances. WADA considers it to be performance-enhancing and harmful to an athlete’s health, and continues to test for it during competition.

“The professional leagues are looking at it more as a kind of code of conduct thing, a gateway drug to other drugs, a sign of a drug problem if you use marijuana — and we don’t take that approach,” said Paul Melia, the head of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which is the body responsible for drug testing Canadian athletes.

Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport president Paul Melia says he doesn’t agree with WADA’s stance banning cannabis use for high-performance athletes. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

At the same time, Canada has pushed WADA to remove cannabis from the banned substances list.

Needs a closer look

“There are those who say it inhibits fears. So it allows an athlete to take greater risks in high-risk sports. There are even those who suggest that it adds to an athlete’s creativity in sports where creativity may be of some value,” Melia said.

“I think a closer look at the scientific literature would suggest it’s equivocal when it comes to its performance-enhancing benefit. We’ve never wanted the Canadian anti-doping program to be used to police recreational drug use by athletes.”

In a sport like figure skating, Moscovitch says consuming marijuana would not enhance performance.

“In our sport, there is so much going on: it’s very fast-paced, there’s lots of balance involved,” he said. “Also in pair skating, you have a relationship with another person on the ice that’s relying on you. If you are in another place, they will know right away.

“If you lost your focus or you forget a specific thing and change your pattern all of a sudden, you’re 10 feet from your partner and it ruins the next element and the set up for the one after. It’s potentially dangerous.”

The medical evidence — or lack thereof — supports what Moscovitch and Melia are saying about cannabis use.

“If you look at the potential to enhance sport performance, the reality is the evidence just doesn’t exist. There’s been a couple of older studies, really only two, that I’m aware of,” said Dennis Jensen, an associate professor of kinesiology and physical education at McGill University.

While it’s unclear whether cannabis acts as a performance enhancer, Jensen said there’s a danger in imposing restrictions based on anecdotal evidence. He points out that drugs only make it to market after rigorous testing — and that just hasn’t yet happened with cannabis.

“You don’t necessarily take something off a list if it also hasn’t undergone rigorous testing,” he said.

‘We don’t have the evidence’

Mixed martial arts is an example of where marijuana use could be both an advantage and a disadvantage, Jensen suggests.

“You may have increased confidence, lowering of anxiety that could be potentially performance-enhancing. But if you offset that with slower reaction times, you could argue that you feel better — but you’re slower and you’re going to get punched more. So I don’t really think, in the end of it all, we know. We don’t have the evidence.”

Jensen and his colleagues at McGill recently published a paper exploring cannabis and athletic performance. He expects an influx of similar studies as academics attempt to fill in the blanks and provide strengthened rationale for rules governing cannabis use across all sectors of society, including sports.

“I think we are in a very prime and timely period to advance this area of research very, very aggressively,” he said. “Maybe confirm some of these anecdotal reports or debunk them completely.”

Athletes like Dylan Moscovitch, from his retirement perch, will be watching.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see how society adjusts its view, whether there is still the same stigma that comes along with it. Everyone is different but it’s very important for athletes to be able to relax and blow off steam,” he said.

“Whether that’s a couple of drinks with our friends, or meditating, or watching television, or whether that’s having some sort of cannabis product. We’ll see what happens and I think people having an open mind is super important because everyone has different needs.”

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