Is Pot a Performance Enhancing Drug?

By Ngaio Bealum
Aug 13, 2020
Josh Gordon #10 of the Seattle Seahawks takes the field before the start of their game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on November 24, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

At first it may seem like an odd question. Cannabis is a Performance Enhancing Drug (PED)?  How? Everyone knows the stoner stereotype: A stoner is kinda chubby and inactive, a person more interested in video games than games involving actual running and jumping. How can a substance infamous for making people lazy and lethargic possibly help with sports? 

There are a couple ways it might: Weed is a known anti-anxiety medication. Being mellow and calm in the face of pressure or difficulty can be crucial in any sportsball event. 

Ask anyone who has to make a free throw or sink a 5-foot putt to win a match. The PGA bans the use of anti-anxiety meds, like Xanax, for that reason. Being hella nervous before a big moment is part of the game. 

Cannabis also helps people “find a groove” or “get into the zone.”  Plus, weed has anti-inflammatory properties, so it could help athletes to recover more quickly after a game or a training session. These things could lead one to believe that cannabis is indeed a PED, and should be banned by professional sports leagues. 


Professional sports leagues are full of drugs. Doctors in the NFL prescribe painkillers and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs like there’s no such thing as a side effect or a physical addiction. Hundreds of  current and former NFL and NBA players have developed painkiller dependencies. 

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a substance that could alleviate both pain and inflammation? A substance that carried very little risk of addiction and no long term side effects?  A substance like cannabis maybe? 

Retired players use cannabis all the time. Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre battled an addiction to Vicodin. Now he’s a spokesman for a CBD brand. Former Bears QB Jim McMahon went public with how he kicked a Percocet addiction by using MED. 

There’s a case to be made that football players should be allowed to use cannabis not just for pain and inflammation, but to help prevent concussion related brain damage and CTE. Cannabis has neuroprotective qualities.  Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli scientist who discovered the THC molecule, co-authored a paper in 2002 showing how weed protects the brain during injury.  Dr. Xia Zhang published a study in 2005 which found that weed helps the hippocampus create new brain cells.

Then, check this quote from a study done at the University of Washington looking for a drug to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease):

“Ideally, a multidrug regimen, including glutamate antagonists, antioxidants, a centrally acting anti-inflammatory agent, microglial cell modulators (including tumor necrosis factor alpha [TNF-alpha] inhibitors), an antiapoptotic agent, 1 or more neurotrophic growth factors, and a mitochondrial function-enhancing agent would be required to comprehensively address the known pathophysiology of ALS. Remarkably, cannabis appears to have activity in all of those areas. [emphasis mine] Preclinical data indicate that cannabis has powerful antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects.”

Yes, there were a lot of big words in that last bit. Here is the gist: WEED IS GOOD MEDICINE.

It makes no sense for professional sports leagues to ban cannabis in favor of substances with a higher potential for harm or abuse. It would be one thing if these studies were brand new and sports teams hadn’t had time to look at the facts, but these studies are all more than ten years old. It is long past time for professional sports teams to leave cannabis users alone. 

Some progress, some setbacks. 

There have been some changes.  The NBA said it won’t test players for cannabis in the COVID-imposed league bubble at Disney World. Way back in the 70’s and early 80’s, the NBA didn’t care; marijuana wasn’t even on the banned substances list, but then they got caught up in the  “Just Say NO” era and the NBA Player’s Union allowed for marijuana testing in exchange for more money. 

The NFL has a weird kinda hypocritical position: Players get tested once in the preseason, and if they pass, they don’t get tested again and can smoke as much as they want unless they get caught. Josh Gordon could tell you all about it

Major League Baseball doesn’t test for weed or any other drug that isn’t directly linked to sports performance enhancement. The NHL tests players for THC, but it doesn’t suspend players for testing positive. 

It is time for pro sports teams to get with the times. No one will accuse players of being bad people for wanting to use cannabis. Despite the rumblings and hurt  feelings from the fuddy-duddies, pot has proved to be safer than alcohol, aspirin, and any opiate based pain reliever. 

Union reps and team owners should work together to create better rules. In fact, team owners could go one step further and allow cannabis  to be sold at sporting events. Think about it: Less drunken violence in the stands, more revenue from food sales. Win-win.

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