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?
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?
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.
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.