On March 24, 2019, 29-year-old New England Patriots’ tight-end Rob Gronkowski (aka Gronk) announced his retirement from the NFL after nine years in the league. As most people know, football is incredibly hard on the body; during his career, Gronkowski suffered injuries to his forearm, back and knees, which is what informed his decision to retire and “focus on my health.” Five months later, Gronk made another big announcement about his future — he would be partnering with a CBD company to create a line of topical pain treatments. When he shared this news with the press, he said he was “blown away with how well it (CBD) worked. I am pain free, and that is a big deal.”
Fast forward to April 22 of this year when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced that they had traded a fourth-round draft pick to the Patriots in exchange for Gronkowski and a seventh-round selection. When commenting on his decision to come out of retirement, Gronkowski commented, “I’ve always said, I wouldn’t come back unless I’m feeling it, unless I’m feeling good, feeling healthy and I’m feeling like I’m ready to go. Now this is the case, this is the time…. It definitely wasn’t last year, my body 100 percent needed a rest….I was in some pain at some serious times even while playing the game — but that’s why I did the last year. I took care of myself, I let my body heal, I let my body rest, I let my body get the treatments that it needed.”
Gronkowski is one of many professional athletes promoting CBD after trying it out themselves. Tony Hawk (skateboarding), Megan Rapinoe (soccer) and Riley Cote (hockey) have spoken openly about using CBD, and some have started their own companies selling CBD products directed towards athletes. In an interview last year, Megan Rapinoe stated, “CBD is a natural alternative that has helped me stay at the top of my game for several years now, whether that be regulating my sleep, relaxing on long flights, helping with inflammation, or recovering after hard trainings and games. Bottom line, it’s natural, and I don’t want to be filling my body with chemicals.”
Having current and retired professional athletes speak about their experiences using CBD is not only sparking huge fan interest, but it’s also influencing professional sports leagues to reconsider their stance on cannabis as a controlled substance. Last December, Major League Baseball became the first professional sports league in the US to remove cannabis from its list of banned substances. In January of this year, the NFL’s Pain Management Committee and the NFL Players Association held a fact-finding forum with manufacturers of products that use CBD in sports medicine to update the committee on CBD products, available research, and evidence of how CBD products could benefit patients, especially athletes.
If you are an athlete who is curious about using CBD but don’t know where to start or what to look for, here are some frequently asked questions and answers.
What is WADA, and how does it interface with international and national sports governing bodies in terms of determining anti-doping and drug policy?
WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, was formed in 1999 as an international, independent agency to coordinate the fight against doping in athletics. In 2004, it introduced “The World Anti-Doping Code,” the core document that aligns anti-doping policies, rules, and regulations within sport organizations and among public authorities around the world. It works in conjunction with six International Standards which aim to foster consistency among anti-doping organizations in various areas: Testing; laboratories; Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs); the List of Prohibited Substances and Methods; the protection of privacy and personal information; and Code Compliance by Signatories. This unified approach addresses problems that previously arose from disjointed and uncoordinated anti-doping efforts.
One of the largest international governing bodies is the International Olympic Committee (IOC). They recognize other federations for individual sports: The Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), the Association of International Olympic Winter Sports Federations (AIOWF), and the Association of the IOC Recognized International Sports Federations (ARISF). The IOC has an Olympic Charter which sets rules and expectations for Olympic athletes (https://www.wada-ama.org/sites/default/files/resources/files/ioc_anti-doping_rules_tokyo2020.pdf). IOC defines doping as the occurrence of one or more of the antidoping rule violations as laid out in the charter. The rule topics include: Presence of a prohibited substance or its metabolites or markers in an athlete’s sample; use or attempted use by an athlete of a prohibited substance or a prohibited method; evading, refusing, or failing to submit to sample collection; tampering or attempted tampering with any part of doping control, and possession of a prohibited substance or a prohibited method.
In 2018, WADA declared CBD an acceptable substance. It is the first major agency to acknowledge CBD as a compound separate from marijuana (THC). That said, the organization does caution athletes using CBD to be aware of the THC levels in the CBD products they are using. Their guiding document states, “Synthetic cannabidiol is not a cannabimimetic; however, cannabidiol extracted from cannabis plants may also contain varying concentrations of THC, which remains a prohibited substance.”
This is the current list of Sports Organizations that have accepted the code:
What is each major athletic association/league’s stance on CBD and cannabis?
Each has their own stance on cannabinoid use, and they vary drastically.
FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association): Following WADA guidelines (see above), use of CBD is allowed, but THC is not.
NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association): Cannabinoids are listed on the 2019-20 Banned Drugs List, specifically, “marijuana; tetrahydrocannabinol (THC); synthetic cannabinoids (e.g., spice, K2, JWH-018, JWH-073).” CBD is not listed as a banned cannabinoid; however, the document also states, “Any substance that is chemically related to one of the above classes, even if it is not listed as an example, is also banned!” One can infer from this statement that CBD would also be banned, as it is chemically related to the marijuana plant. That said, the only cannabinoid they test for is THC.
MLB (Major League Baseball): In December of 2019, MLB became the first professional sports league in the US to remove cannabis from its list of banned substances. In a press release, MLB in association with the Players League commented, “Natural cannabinoids (e.g., THC, CBD, and Marijuana) will be removed from the Program’s list of Drugs of Abuse. Going forward, marijuana-related conduct will be treated the same as alcohol-related conduct under the Parties’ Joint Treatment Program for Alcohol-Related and Off-Field Violent Conduct, which provides mandatory evaluation, voluntary treatment and the possibility of discipline by a Player’s Club or the Commissioner’s Office in response to certain conduct involving Natural Cannabinoids.”
MLS (Major League Soccer): If a substance is banned by the US Anti-Doping Agency or FIFA, it is banned by the league. Following WADA guidelines, use of CBD is allowed, but THC is not.
NBA (National Basketball League): Cannabis (CBD and THC) is one of many substances banned by the NBA/NBPA Anti-drug Program. If a player tests positive for THC, he must comply with subsequent testing and may be required to seek treatment. What is not clear is whether hemp-derived CBD would trigger a suspension. Players are randomly tested four times a year and must not exceed the THC threshold of 15ng/ml. If a player consumed hemp-derived CBD oil with less than 0.3% THC and less than 15ng/ml of THC, it is not clear whether they might be suspended or not.
NFL (National Football League): Under the new collective bargaining agreement negotiated between the NFL and the NFL Players Association in early 2020, players who test positive for marijuana will no longer be suspended. Testing will be limited to the first two weeks of training camp instead of from April to August, and the threshold for the amount of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana needed to trigger a positive test, will be raised fourfold.
NHL (National Hockey League): The NHL essentially has two drug policies. The first is the performance enhancing drug policy which bans drugs such as stimulants, growth hormones, anabolic agents and drugs that are considered to give players an advantage. The second is the SABH program (Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health). This program was designed for the specific purpose of dealing with issues of substance abuse for players in a confidential manner. If they determine a player’s drug test features “abnormally high levels” of THC, they will contact the player, recommend they enter the SABH, in which they’ll develop an individualized treatment plan, but they are not forced to go.
NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League): The women’s premier soccer league’s stance on cannabis and its derivative products is quite liberal, allowing players to use cannabinoids like CBD for pain management.
WNBA (Women’s National Basketball League): Cannabis and its byproducts are listed as prohibited substances in the league’s collective bargaining agreement. The WNBA has a specific marijuana program in the anti-drug section of the CBA.
USA Triathlon: Under USADA and WADA, CBD is an acceptable substance for triathletes to use. In fact, they have created a partnership with a company producing CBD products.
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