With all the curative benefits it would seem common sense to remove CBD from WADA’s prohibited substances list. Although professional athletes will tell you the pressure was on, WADA says it happened as a result of intense study and research.
Michael Backes, author of “Cannabis Pharmacy,” sees WADA’s policy change as somewhat of a no-brainer.
“It’s not performance enhancing, it’s performance enabling,” he offers of CBD with a small chuckle. “It’s really a great recovery drug for athletic endeavors and it may have significant neural protection capabilities for contact sports and so I think it’s just a smart move that just shows somebody is actually practicing medicine.”
Dr. Kent Crowley is not so sure research had anything to do with it.
“They are getting so much pressure from athletes saying, ‘Why are you loading me up with all these fucking drugs?’,” he says, noting that’s the wording he hears from the pro athletes he helps to manage with regards to their health care.
At the start of each year, WADA begins its annual review in January and releases its prohibited list of banned substances in September. “Annually, the Prohibited List review involves a very extensive stakeholder consultation process over the course of nine months,” said Director General Olivier Niggli in his official statement on Sept. 29, 2017. “In reviewing the List, experts examine such sources as: scientific and medical research; trends; and, intelligence gathered from law enforcement and pharmaceutical companies in order to stay ahead of those that endeavor to cheat the system.”
According to a WADA spokesperson, the list is harmonized across all sports and a substance may be considered for inclusion if it meets two of the following three criteria: it has the potential to enhance sport performance; it represents a health risk to the athletes; and it violates the spirit of sport.
In developing the list each year, WADA noted “that the List is not static but evolves based on new scientific evidence; therefore, WADA maintains dialogue with athletes, administrators, scientific experts, and other stakeholders and closely follows the literature in this area to obtain new evidence and information as it becomes available.”
Jeff Novitzky, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) vice president of athlete health and performance, was not surprised that WADA changed their policy on CBD
“because they are reasonable, they have scientists that look at these issues and they have to realize that CBD doesn’t fit under any of these guidelines that we have. The only reason you would be prohibiting CBD would [be] because of a moral issue and I think they realized they aren’t trying to be the moral police here. They are looking at performance-enhancing benefits and health and safety issues.”
Formerly a U.S. federal agent for two decades, Novitzky joined the UFC two years ago to oversee its drug testing program. He sees WADA’s move as a positive development as most UFC athletes are already using CBD. “Right now, as it stands, we advise most of our athletes if they do use CBD, to discontinue using it during fight week to make sure there is none in their system during an in-competition test. But beginning Jan. 1, 2018 there won’t be a need for that, they won’t have to worry about that at all,” says Novitzky, who notes the most common question he gets from UFC athletes has to do with the use of CBD and cannabis.
That’s probably because WADA hasn’t completely banned THC, cannabis’ psychoactive compound. “
A few years ago, WADA, through studies and their scientists, determined someone who has low levels of THC in their system is neither getting a performance-enhancing benefit nor is there really a health and safety aspect unless those levels get really high,” explains Novitzky. “So, they took their threshold from 15 nanograms per milliliter and upped it to 150 so now it must exceed 150 ng/ml of THC in order to trigger a positive test.”
Many attribute WADA’s change in CBD policy to pressure from athletes. The most prominent being UFC fighter Nate Diaz who vaped from a CBD pen during a post-fight press conference Aug. 20, 2016.
“My speculation is that probably most of the pressure did come from athletes who were starting to make these very overt associations with cannabis use. Like that boxer who smoked his CBD pen with kind of reckless abandon,” explains professional cyclist Teal Stetson-Lee, who is an athlete ambassador for Kynd Cannabis Company. “And I would throw myself into the mix, too, by just making the statement that I believe in this (CBD) and I am going to partner with a cannabis company even though it’s technically illegal in my sport. I will play by your rules, but I am not going to stand by on the sidelines. I think there are more athletes who are starting to do that.”
Stetson-Lee thinks Diaz’s actions helped kick off some of the dialogue, but she is interested in how it translated so rapidly into policy change. “I was surprised that it happened so quickly because there has been such pushback from governing authorities for the most part when it comes to cannabis as a substance for athletes to make use of. I think I was anticipating there would be some deeper, longer conversations that would have to happen before there was some receptivity,” says Stetson-Lee, 31, who uses CBD topicals and tinctures. “The thing about CBD is that it’s relatively easy for people to get behind once you start talking about the benefits of it and how it affects your body and, most importantly, that it doesn’t have any psychoactive effects to it. It’s the psychoactive part, the THC piece, that seems to have people all freaked out. That seems to be what makes everyone the most nervous and everyone has their panties in a bunch about.”
UFC fighter Gina Mazany, 29, has a theory of her own as to why WADA lifted the CBD ban. “I feel like it’s a conspiracy theory. There are so many ways that CBD can benefit everyone in one way or another, but if people are using a product that they aren’t going to make money off of then they are not going to allow it, or make it seem like an evil thing,” says Mazany, who uses a 1:1 ratio CBD/THC vape pen that helps her with anxiety and sleep.
“I think it got lifted because the beneficial information about CBD began to surface especially in the MMA world. Because of what we put our bodies through, it’s not normal and it’s ideally not healthy. So why can’t we have this extra something to help us recover and stay healthy and keep the brain damage in line. I am not surprised, I am actually surprised it hasn’t been sooner.”
Former NFL player Kyle Turley, 42, was surprised WADA didn’t go further. “With so many athletes advocating for cannabis period, not just CBD, the FDA/DEA are just falling in line with what the government is saying. The DEA has even said on their Twitter account and websites that CBD is not like marijuana.”
“Everybody’s tune is changing. I was just in DC a couple of weeks ago doing some lobbying and all these guys are saying: ‘I’ll tell you what I am for. I am for the Charlotte’s Web thing and the whole CBD deal.’ So, OK, you are for guys who like to take pictures of themselves in skinny jeans in Colorado. Well this is about marijuana and this is about this plant and that is the base level, tip of the iceberg to what is capable in this plant, period. It doesn’t surprise me, it’s par for the course as to what I have seen thanks to the advocacy of so many great Americans over these years.”
THE CONVERSATION IS FAR FROM OVER
Yet, all the athletes in this story will tell you the cannabis conversation is far from over. Research has shown CBD is most effective in an entourage effect which would include THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. “It still is a little complicated because the most effective CBD products are paired with THC and that’s really important to consider,” imparts Stetson-Lee. “Pure CBD generally doesn’t have the same effectiveness because the THC, and I am by no means a chemist, is fat soluble. It penetrates better and is the catalyst for allowing CBD to then penetrate the body’s cannabinoid receptors. So, in that respect, it’s still going to be tricky. Just because CBD is no longer on the banned substance list that doesn’t necessarily open the floodgates for full cannabis use. Only 100 percent CBD products can be used and that’s not necessarily the whole solution. If THC is still something people are squeamish about, then the conversation is far from over.”
Turley thinks that’s why the NFL has been mum on the subject. “Personally, I think more football players are calling for full legalization, full implementation of this plant because CBD is the tip of the iceberg and in football you are dealing with everyday accounts of serious injury and the need to get back on the field to compete fast.
“Athletes in this discussion on the football side are pressing more for total legalization, more than the other sports who are just saying give us CBD. Football athletes are saying we need more than that. CBD is a tremendous benefit but with THC included it’s supercharged and you need that in dealing with sports like football,” says Turley.
Total legalization for athletes may not be as far away as Turley thinks. “I know Nevada (Nevada Athletic Commission) had talked last January about considering not just taking CBD off the prohibited list, but also taking THC and marijuana off as well,” says Novitzky. “I initially had some concerns about the health and safety issues. You would not want someone walking into the Octagon high on marijuana. But the argument I got on the other side from them was you wouldn’t want someone walking into the Octagon drunk but we aren’t testing for traces of alcohol in their system. We could see that happening before too long,” he says of a full legalization for athletes.
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