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The Need for Weed

Athletes are openly using marijuana for pain relief and as a recovery aid. Science says it works—without boosting performance, as steroids and other performance enhancers do. So why isn’t it legal in sports?


By Chris Lee
10 min

Above Image | Jamie Chung/Trunk Archive

POUNDING ALONG Rocky Mountain trails for 10 to 45 miles daily in preparation for such grueling, high-altitude, multiday events as the Ouray 100 Mile Endurance Run and Fat Dog 120, pro ultramarathoner Avery Collins faces certain practical decisions before lacing up his sneakers, like: Should he smoke marijuana through his vape pen or consume a cannabis-infused chocolate bar?

“Edibles, for me, provide a much deeper high—everything is much more natural and flowing—and it makes the run much more spiritual,” says Collins. “As far as smoking goes, it’s a clearer high. Sometimes even more energetic. Typically, I prefer it on a shorter run—10 to 15 miles—because it’s going to wear off a lot faster.”

The 24-year-old upstart, who set course records at the Colorado 200 Mile Endurance Run & Relay and the Cloudsplitter 100 and who’s won or placed at similar events across North America, is quick to point out that he avoids consuming pot during competitions—cannabinoids are, after all, banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. But like a growing number of long-distance runners who’ve started using cannabis in their pursuit of mental stamina, increased focus, and pain relief, Collins is upfront about the benefits of weed workouts–particularly when it comes to the pot extract cannabidiol (CBD), which he uses via transdermal patches and Ben Gay-like gels to bounce back from sports-sustained wear and tear.

“After a 30- to 40-mile run, I’ll sit down, and my legs will keep throbbing and pounding; it’s like they think they’re still supposed to be going,” says the Steamboat Springs, CO–based runner, who’s sponsored by Roll-uh-Bowl bongs, Mary’s Medicinals, and Incredibles, a line of pot-infused chocolates. “That’s when the CBD compounds help tremendously. They calm down your legs and, because they’re anti-inflammatory, let them recover faster.”

LEGIONS OF BUDDING SPORTS FANS

These days Collins is hardly the only athlete decimating the stereotype of cannabis users as lazy, chip-chomping stoners. In an era when 28 states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws making marijuana medically or recreationally legal, and a recent Gallup poll indicates 60% of Americans support pot legalization, an increasing number of elite athletes are stepping forward to proclaim their cannabis advocacy in ways that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.

Overturning decades of stigmatization of pot as a gateway drug that ineluctably leads to the abuse of more dangerous Schedule I substances like methamphetamine and heroin, this new wave of sports-world acceptance puts cannabis forward as a “biohack.” That is, a plant-based alternative to opioid pain-relief drugs such as codeine or OxyContin that has the added benefit of unlocking the mind’s potential to boost physical output.

Furthermore, so-called canna-athletics is no longer the exclusive domain of chill bros like surfers and ski bums. Weed workouts and cannabis-enhanced recovery products have come into vogue among pro football players, bodybuilders, Major League Baseball players, mixed martial artists, and endurance athletes—as well as some of their coaches, many of whom are helping promote the efficacy of cannabis through word of mouth.

“I think all athletes—whether they’re NFL or NBA pros or just serious athletes wanting to better their fitness—are learning about the therapeutic potential of this plant,” say Suzanne Sisley, M.D., an Arizona-based physician and psychiatrist affiliated with the advocacy group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, who regularly treats pro athletes’ sports-related injuries. “Athletes are teaching each other how to do this. It’s like a peer-mentoring process.”

Among those pro-pot pros: UFC commentator and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Joe Rogan, who wrote on his blog: “Getting high and working out is one of the least talked about and least appreciated pleasures of fitness”; 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis (who was later stripped of his title for using synthetic testosterone), who uses cannabis to combat chronic hip pain and launched a line of recreational marijuana-infused products called Floyd’s of Leadville last summer; even Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who admitted trying—but disliking—cannabis as a remedy for back pain. On a podcast last December, however, Kerr expressed hope that the NBA would consider removing marijuana from its banned-substance list. “I don’t think there’s any question that pot is better for your body than Vicodin,” Kerr said. “Yet athletes everywhere are prescribed Vicodin like it’s vitamin C, like it’s no big deal. There’s this perception that over-the-counter drugs are fine and pot is bad. I think that’s changing.”

Jim McAlpine is the founder of the 420 Games, a three-year-old, family-friendly sporting-event series intended to “change the perspective on cannabis and the people who use it within a healthy and active lifestyle.” Last May, the longtime weightlifter, open-water swimmer, and cannabis user announced he’d be opening Power Plant Fitness, a San Francisco gym/wellness center that would allow members to consume marijuana products on site, under the supervision of canna-knowledgable fitness professionals.

“It’s always been a huge part of bodybuilding culture to smoke,” says McAlpine, recalling the scene in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron when seven-time Mr. Olympia winner Arnold Schwarzenegger is shown enthusiastically smoking a joint. “We all hid it. But the collective consciousness has changed to take that stigma away. It’s like coming out of the closet for a gay person. I’ve had to hide this my whole life as an athlete. But now I can stand up and feel proud about it!”

LET’S BE BLUNT: IT WORKS…

Sports pot proselytizers like to say that cannabis isn’t a performance-enhancing drug: Unlike anabolic steroids, testosterone, or EPO, marijuana has never been shown to give users an unfair competitive advantage. But, users say, its benefits—physical and mental, pre- and post-workout—abound. The plant’s psychoactive effects will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a Cheech & Chong movie. Users experience mild, short-term euphoria but also, at times, anxiety and introspection, thanks to a cannabinoid called tetrahydrocannabinol, aka THC.

“Cannabis helps your mind get into a flow state as an athlete,” McAlpine says. “Whether you’re skiing or running or in the gym lifting weights, cannabis can unlock your mind’s potential to focus on the sport you’re participating in.”

Meanwhile, another cannabinoid in weed, the aforementioned CBD—which, notably, doesn’t get users stoned—is now widely recognized for its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties as well as its ability to lessen anxiety, insomnia, and the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. It even gained notice in 2013 as a treatment for childhood epilepsy.

Though outlawed by the UFC, CBD is increasingly popular among fighters looking for alternatives to prescription pain pills. Brawlers like UFC welterweight Nate Diaz even use it to treat symptoms of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease resulting from severe or repeated blows to the head.

“It helps with the healing process and inflammation,” Diaz said while smoking a CBD-loaded vape pen during a press conference after UFC 202 last August. “So you want to get these before and after the fights, training. It’ll make your life a better place.”

According to a relatively new but growing body of research within the medical world, weed’s palliative power owes to an in-built compatibility with the human body’s endocannabinoid system—its largest neurotransmitter system—which is, in fact, named after the marijuana plant Cannabis sativa. “The endocannabinoid system is present in all of our organs,” says Steven DeAngelo, author of The Cannabis Manifesto: A New Paradigm for Wellness. “It’s also the neurotransmitter system that processes cannabis. And it endogenously produces chemicals similar to, if not identical to, what the cannabis plant produces to maintain homeostasis.”

…BUT NOT WELL ENOUGH, SAYS THE FDA

Though widespread anecdotal evidence points to a legitimate biological basis for the benefits of marijuana, the substance cannot be designated a true “medicine” until undergoing rigorous controlled trials by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And due to what many legalization proponents call bureaucratic heel dragging, that has yet to happen.

“The FDA has not approved any drug product containing or derived from botanical marijuana for any indication,” reads a statement on the administration’s website. “This means that the FDA has not found any such product to be safe or effective for the treatment of any disease or condition.”

Moreover, users face certain risks that have grown only more acute in recent years due to the increasing potency of marijuana. Research shows that cannabis consumption—particularly in heavy doses (above 100mg) and for chronic users—can impair short-term memory and decrease alertness, limit lung capacity, and pose increased heart-attack incidence, especially for users with preexisting heart conditions. According to Ben Greenfield, an Ironman triathlete/fitness trainer/holistic nutritionist who wrote the best-selling biohack compendium Beyond Training, those risks should be taken seriously by athletes.

“For events that require fine motor skills, like tennis or golf, it could have a deleterious effect,” says Greenfield. “There are some suggestions that it could cause damage to the heart. One study published in the American Heart Association’s journal found that pot use can cause what’s called transient ventricular regional ballooning: TVRB of the heart, a form of cardiomyopathy that can weaken the heart muscle and mimic symptoms of a heart attack.”

In terms of maintaining an athlete’s lung health, though, Greenfield says eating weed beats smoking it, hands down: “Edibles, vaping, patches, or mouth strips would be highly encouraged versus smoking.”

For her part, Sisley admits she was deeply skeptical of cannabis as a wellness tool when she first encountered it a decade ago among veterans suffering from PTSD.

“I consider myself a scientist,” says Sisley, who’s also a certified clinician for Major League Baseball. “I don’t advocate anything unless it’s based on data.”

But having spent the past six years conducting an FDA-approved medical-marijuana study on treating veterans with PTSD, for which she was given a $2 million grant from the Colorado Board of Health, Sisley’s come to accept its “whole plant” medicinal value: “There’s already substantial data suggesting that cannabis can promote neuroprotection,” says Sisley, who will begin a study on NFL players and medical marijuana use for CTE in late 2017. “And it can be really useful for athletes experiencing multiple head injuries. They could use it as a preventive tool for brain repair.”

REEFER MAD MEN OF THE NFL

Exhibit A: Ex–Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe. Last year, Monroe became the first active NFL player to openly advocate for the use of cannabinoids to treat chronic pain and CTE.

In June, however, Monroe was released by the team after publishing an open letter on the site The Players’ Tribune, which pointed out the league’s heavy reliance on opioids to get players back on the field. It noted that retired NFL players misuse prescription painkillers at a rate more than four times higher than the general population, and pushed for marijuana to be removed from the league’s list of banned substances.

“I was at the opposite end at one point—the person who wanted no association with cannabis whatsoever,” says Monroe, who retired last summer citing health concerns caused by the serial concussions he sustained over a lifetime of football. “Now I’m openly fighting for it. When cannabis is illegal and opioids are the No. 1 choice for managing pain, that’s a problem. We need to let athletes consume cannabis to heal from injuries and manage pain and inflammation.”

That point is echoed by Kyle Turley, a two-time NFL first-team all-pro and 1998 first-round draft pick. During his nine seasons as an offensive lineman for teams like the New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams, he sustained serious ankle, shoulder, and back injuries, which he says got him hooked on opioid pain medication. After retiring in 2007, he began having neurological issues, including suicidal depression and fainting spells, and the addiction escalated.

Finally, he swapped the meds for medical marijuana—and, two years ago, experienced a miraculous turnaround. “Cannabis saved my life, period,” he says. “It’s given me back my energy, my drive, my determination.”

Now, as the NFL is mired in CTE lawsuits, Turley has become an outspoken advocate of overturning the league’s cannabis ban. “The NFL’s stance on this is terrifying. There’s something on the sideline waiting to get in and save the game, and they don’t seem to care,” he says. “Are we going to get into the semantics of ‘reefer madness’ when the science is truly there?”

BLAZING THE TRAIL—THROUGH WASHINGTON?

But even the most 420-friendly sports evangelists will tell you that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to pot consumption. Given the hundreds of different cannabis phenotypes, Sisley says, user experiences tend to be “strain dependent,” with different varieties of weed provoking different levels of alertness—or paranoia—in users.

“Everybody reacts differently,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to take it out of the shadows—to educate users and offer access to lab-tested cannabis. We want to enable athletes to come off the black market and find a strain that works for them.”

Meanwhile, “microdoses” of pot are becoming more and more popular in the fitness community. Typically between 5mg and =, these dosages are still large enough to trigger cannabinoids’ positive effects, yet small enough not to stimulate its more negative ones.

But if new U. S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has his way, pot laws will stay strict. He’s made it clear he’s a fervent foe of pot, stating last April, “We need grown-ups in charge of Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.” So it remains to be seen how he’ll react if and when McAlpine makes good on his goal of taking Power Plant Fitness nationwide. (Three more California branches are in the planning stages.)

“Cannabis isn’t for stupid stoners who sit on their asses and eat Taco Bell,” he says. “There’s a massive number of people who don’t use it because it’s not legal. When it becomes legal, and they hear of its benefits, they’re going to want to try it. I’m creating this gym for the ‘canna-curious,’ to connect them with athletes who can serve as their sensei, or shamans, and ease them into a substance that can be intimidating.”

As for ultramarathoner Avery Collins—who lives in Colorado, where liberal pot laws have given rise to a community of likeminded, toke-loving runners—he’s passed from “canna-curious” to “canna-cool,” and he doesn’t give a damn who knows it.

“I couldn’t care less, man. It doesn’t bother me,” he says about what people think. “There are a lot of elite athletes who use but refuse to say anything publicly because they’re afraid they’ll lose their big sponsors. But others are stepping out to say, ‘I’m a cannabis user, and that doesn’t make me a bad person.’”

Of his decision to forgo vaping during competition, he adds: “I want to follow the rules—and I don’t like people making up excuses as to why I beat them.”