Counterpoint: Marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug

Between a possibly shifting consensus on national drug policy and the sporting world’s intense focus on performance-enhancing drugs over the last decade, one oft-repeated– usually accompanied by a chuckle– and seemingly unobjectionable statement has been that marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug. Faaaarrrr from it, Manti Te’o might say. But is that true?

I. Correlation

There are plenty of athletes who are famous, in part or in whole, for their marijuana use. Nate Newton. Ricky Williams. Tyrann Mathieu. Randy Moss. Tim Lincecum. Michael Vick. Michael Beasley. Every UCLA basketball player ever. For example.

In 1997, the New York Times reported that “60 to 70 percent of [the NBA’s] 350-plus players smoke marijuana.” A year ago, a former professional football player said at least 50 percent of NFL players smoke marijuana, while multiple NFL general managers said it’s more like 60 or 70 percent.

The NCAA says 22.6 percent of all its athletes smoke marijuana, but the rate can be far higher when focusing on certain programs and sports, such as the University of Oregon’s football team, where it’s estimated to be between 40 and 60 percent.

Is there something to the apparent correlation between athletes and marijuana use? Can we assume that people primarily focused on athletic achievement will develop a set of habits designed to maximize such achievement? In the abstract, at least, that’s not an unreasonable assumption, right?

II. Causation

Most commonly recognized PEDs primarily affect athletes’ off-field preparatory activities, particularly in the areas of training, recovery, and rehabilitation. Indeed, substances used and that have their primary effect during competition– cortisone shots, for example– usually are recognized, above-board parts of sports and generally are not grouped with banned PED substances.

Marijuana obviously does not directly improve in-game performance; to the contrary, it impairs coordination, focus, and speed, the fundamental performance aspects of athletic endeavors. Like recognized PEDs, marijuana works in the off-field preparation space.

If nothing else, marijuana can introduce a calming effect that reduces stress in users. This could be beneficial for athletes, who spend a lot of time in high-energy, high-pressure situations, because it could help them come down, de-stress, relax, and refresh between periods of intense training and competition. Even the most competitive people recognize that sustainable life requires some semblance of balance, and when one’s avocation makes it difficult to find that balance, a substance like marijuana could help in achieving it. Reducing pain and helping one sleep surely are beneficial effects for people who have a lot of the former and need plenty of the latter.

As with all PEDs, excessive use can constitute abuse and lead to destructive results off the field and a lack of performance enhancement on it. Neither roid rage nor reefer madness is beneficial for athletes or anyone else.

III. Conclusion

The above is not an argument that sporting authorities should treat marijuana the same way they do more commonly recognized performance-enhancing drugs; rather, this brief presentation is intended to show 1) that an argument can be made that marijuana fits the common definition of performance-enhancing drugs, and 2) that, as a result of the viability of arguments like that, the ongoing exercise of performance-enhancing drug regulation may suffer from potentially fatal conceptual flaws.


Kobe Bryant and PEDs
A reexamination of performance enhancing drugs in sports, and Peyton Manning’s neck


10 thoughts on “Counterpoint: Marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug

    • From my vantage point (i.e., waist-deep in a k-hole, obviously), both are true, there’s no dichotomy, and one is not immediately relevant to the other.

      Sports certainly cause drugs in the celebrity endorsement sense. Whether we aspire to the athlete-celebrity lifestyle or just want to up our rickety muni golf game/pump more iron, we look to athletes for guidance. If we want to be like Mike, we buy his shoes, and, it stands to reason, his supplements. GNC isn’t in every suburban strip mall without sports.

      To the point in your link, the other thing to remember is that sports (by way of drugs) cause cell phones (by way of pagers), but we already knew that.

  1. Questions presented: I think the real question is less about the pots than it is about speed, excuse me, ritalin, adderall etc. Those ARE performance enhancing drugs, no question…

  2. Hello! I’ve been reading your weblog for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Huffman Texas! Just wanted to mention keep up the good work!

  3. Slight issue here, You haven’t read the list of banned drugs closely enough.

    Many drugs are banned in competition only, such as stimulants (modafinil, ephedrine) and narcotics (fentanyl, morphine). Your argument is centred around the idea that cannabinoids enhance performance through use outside of competition. However, cannabinoids are one of those drugs that is not banned outside of competition.

    The fact that most PEDs are used primarily outside of competition is less because that is how they are optimally used and more because it’s easier to get away with that way. Androgens and anti-oestrogens give a transient increase in strength as well as long term and Beta-2 agonists give an increase in VO2 max and explosive power.

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