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CBD Use Becomes Popular in Sports Despite Lingering Stigma

By Naomi Birenbaum

Like any other performance-altering substance, the use of marijuana — more specifically its components cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — has been heavily regulated in sports. Recently, however, the public is becoming less wary as the popularity of CBD products increases.

CBD is a nonintoxicating compound found in marijuana that can help reduce pain and anxiety. Athletes use CBD not to enhance performance, but to de-stress; it does not produce the “high” sensation that comes from the THC component of marijuana. Marijuana, though, has many negative effects that would seem to hinder athletic performance, like increased heart rate, possible damage to the respiratory system, lung cancer, reduced motor function, and more.

Controversy surrounding pain relievers or performance-altering substances is uncommon, especially in the world of teen sports, but as “safe” products become increasingly available, conversations have started about more people using CBD.

Emma Rafael, a junior at Berkeley High School (BHS), has had back problems that have worsened over her years of playing soccer. She said, “I’ve done physical therapy, been to a chiropractor, I’ve tried a lot of different solutions, but nothing has worked.” When asked if she would use CBD products to relieve pain from sports injuries, she said that she would be willing to try it. Many teens struggle with sports-related injuries and can end up spending hundreds or thousands of dollars pursuing a solution. CBD products could not only relieve pain, but the financial burden of an injury as well.

However, James Johnson, BHS’s strength and conditioning coach, would not recommend that teens start using CBD products due to a lack of research on the subject. In mainstream sports, he believes that as long as pain relieving pills continue to get players addicted, CBD will likely become more popular in professional sports.

Slowly but surely, the stigma around CBD products is becoming less intense. Four years ago, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) reduced the punishment for a positive marijuana test from a year to only six months. In 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from its list of banned substances, though THC is still on the list. Last month, Dave Fehr, the executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) said that the National Hockey League (NHL) may come to an “informal understanding” about marijuana use.

Last week, the USA Triathlon became the first US National Governing Body to make an official sponsorship with a company that sells CBD products: Pure Spectrum. Brady Bell, the founder and CEO of Pure Spectrum, is a former athlete and said he has “experienced the healing powers of hemp firsthand.”

These changes, while relatively small, did not come easily. In 1998, Ross Rebagliati, a snowboarder from Canada, had his medal taken away from him temporarily during the 1998 Nagano Olympics in Japan after testing positive for THC. Begliati claimed he had only inhaled smoke at parties and had not smoked marijuana for over ten months. Three days later, his medal was returned to him, but the stigma surrounding marijuana use, despite being common in snowboarding culture, ruined his reputation. His career as a snowboarder was virtually over. Later in his life, Rebagliati became involved in the cannabis business.

It is unclear if the sports world will ever fully accept CBD as a pain reliever. The substance’s link to THC and marijuana makes this difficult, but because more athletes are trying CBD products and are able to vouch for its benefits, it is possible that CBD will become a mainstream product in many sports in the near future.

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