Marijuana Culture Among Athletes
Marijuana culture is gaining ground, becoming ever more ubiquitous across every demographic variable. Cannabis users are less likely to be stereotyped as the loser lacking direction, motivation, and future. The normalization of cannabis culture is now supported by legalized use in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Washington DC. Canada is about to table a bill legalizing marijuana at the federal level, that will go into law in 2018. What does this mean for runners?
Athletes have followed this trend, with popular cannabis culture popping up all over North America. Events, such as the, “Four-Twenty Games,” a group established to, “..de-stigmatize the millions who use cannabis in a healthy and responsible lifestyle,” are growing in popularity.
However, it is important to ask, “Is it useful?” Cultural movements, especially populist in orientation, require scrutiny and evaluation, especially when discussing cannabis culture in athletics.
First, before you read any further, allow me to get one important item out-of-the-way. I am in no way attempting to derail the marijuana culture that is gaining increased recognition. However, as you make a personal decision about using marijuana as an athlete, it is important to separate fact from fiction.
For purposes of this article, facts are only those supported by peer-reviewed literature, and interpreted with scientific scrutiny. Fiction is defined as personal accounts, and subjective interpretation of the data, both leading to confirmation bias. It is critical to move away from reporting peer-reviewed results with added personal spin – I am confident that this comes from a need for answers. However, personal spin does not equal scientific result.
The following outrageous claims are frequently reported in an effort to justify the normalization of cannabis culture. It is easy to find YouTube videos supporting the following anecdotal claims. Is anecdote always wrong? Nope! However, anecdote rarely supports scientific fact:
Peer-Reviewed Data About Cannabis
Marijuana has been shown to be at least moderately helpful with physical symptoms of disease, particularly pain. Reaching beyond symptom management is problematic. In other words, there is absolutely no research supporting claims that cannabis cures cancer, etc.
The following results indicate improvement of physical and mental health symptoms with cannabinoid use. However, it should be noted that most studies in the reported meta-analytic review did not meet statistical significance, and many suffered research design problems. (Whiting et al., Cannabinoids for Medical Use: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.)
- Improved nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy – Reliability = Low
- HIV/AIDS weight gain – Reliability = Low
- Chronic pain – Reliability = Moderate
- Spasticity due to MS – Reliability = Moderate
- Clinical Depression – Reliability = Low
- Anxiety Disorder – Reliability = Low
- Tourette’s Syndrome – Reliability = Low
Athletes – The Pros and Cons of Cannabis Use
For athletes, whether you are a runner or pole vaulter, the body of evidence seems to land on the following benefits and contraindications.
Benefits – Cannabis has been shown to be at least moderately helpful in the treatment of neuropathic pain and injury.
Contraindications – Cannabis decreases lung function when smoked, especially for daily users. Regular cannabis use can lead to problems with motivation, a concern that all athletes never want to face.
The Drive For An Altered State
It is clear that proponents of cannabis tend to over state the benefits of THC/CBD, when the peer-reviewed evidence is clearly weak. However, is this actually a problem?
Runners, in particular, are seekers of achievement, physical challenge, personal growth, and an altered state. The physiology of the runners high centres around endorphins, the bodies natural feel-good hormone. Many runners are able to achieve the benefit of endorphins after each run. However, we rarely identify this specifically as an addiction.
As an addictions clinician for nearly two decades, I have settled on an understanding of addiction that shifts the therapeutic focus away from moralism and shame. In essence, the opioid user, as an example, seeks an altered state each time they use, a state shift from dysphoric mood and anxiety, to a feeling of calm, relief, and joy.
It is important to normalize this goal in recognition that we all are seeking an altered state in one fashion or another. When I go for a run, especially a long distance run, I am seeking a shift in how I feel. This is no different from someone who misuses substances. However the risk of using illicit drugs causes pause. Ongoing opioid use leads to problems with relationships, finances, health, and even overdose. There is no such risk as a runner.
The Verdict – Is THC My Friend? Sorta!
Using cannabis is a personal choice. I do not seek to discredit or criticize anyone who uses marijuana, especially athletes that find it a helpful part of their recovery. The problem rests in how marijuana users choose to justify their choice. Using anecdotal evidence, or peer-reviewed results with minimal to modest reliability outcomes, is a clear confirmation bias trap. It is better to be honest about the intention to use, and end judgment on yourself for liking the effects of getting high.
Thus, I find the following to be true:
- Millions of people use cannabis.
- Cannabis users are seeking an altered state.
- There is very poor evidence supporting the medical benefits of cannabis.
- People like to get high – And that is okay!
- We are ALL seeking an altered state of one type or another.
- Marijuana has relatively low risk of causing harm.
- Acceptance of our intent will end personal judgement.