The recent Olympic Games have brought cannabis to the headlines yet again, as more and more athletes are using the plant and touting its many benefits as a natural treatment to support their mental and physical health. But why are some athletes like Sha’Carri Richardson banned from competing while others, such as Megan Rapinoe, are allowed to actively promote their use and still compete?
Let’s dive into the difference between CBD and THC and their effects on athletes’ physical and mental health.
What is the difference between CBD and THC?
The cannabis plant has over a hundred different naturally occurring chemical compounds known as cannabinoids. The two most common, and the ones we know the most about, are THC and CBD. Though they are derived from the same Cannabis Sativa plant, the two compounds have distinct properties that separate them from one another, offering their own unique effects on the body.
What is THC?
THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is the most well-known cannabinoid and the reason for much of the plant’s notoriety. THC is the psychoactive compound responsible for the analgesic, relaxing, and euphoric sensations associated with cannabis consumption. In addition, THC’s mood-altering and sedative effects make it a viable and effective treatment for various medicinal conditions and are also the reason behind its popularity for recreational use.
THC, usually labeled as “medical marijuana,” is currently legal in more than half of the US States, though you must have a doctor’s prescription to use it. This legalization was informed by research that showed that THC offsets many otherwise painful symptoms associated with chronic pain and nausea.
What is CBD?
CBD stands for cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant. Unlike THC, found in high concentrations in marijuana, high concentrations of CBD occur naturally in hemp. While CBD shares many therapeutic benefits attributed to THC, it does so without the intoxicating effects. Simply, CBD can have a similar effect for pain relief without getting you high.
Why does the Olympics allow CBD but not THC?
The World Anti-Doping Agency prohibits the use of all-natural and synthetic cannabinoids except for CBD, which was exempted and went into effect on January 1, 2018. The 2021 Tokyo Olympic games are the first where athletes have had the opportunity to use CBD. Many of the world’s elite athletes, such as Rapinoe and men’s track and field star Devon Allen, have acknowledged using CBD as part of their training regimen to boost their athletic performance.
So why CBD but not THC? Some claim it’s due to the different effects of cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. For example, CBD offers similar effects for pain relief without getting you high, unlike THC.
It may also have to do with the amount of time the cannabinoid remains in the body. THC is absorbed into the fat stores and comes out of the body over several days so it can show up in urine samples or blood tests.
Safety and Benefits
The overwhelming evidence supporting the use of cannabis led the World Health Organization (WHO), in January 2019, to recommend to the United Nations that cannabis be rescheduled and provided clarity to its treatment of all cannabinoids. They stated that CBD “is generally well tolerated with a good safety profile” and that it exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential.
CBD may provide several benefits for athletes. For example, athletes often experience severe stress and anxiety and report that CBD has a calming and relaxing effect that relieves general tension.
Sleep is also an issue for many elite athletes, especially those traveling to compete in different time zones. Many athletes find that the calming effects of CBD also promote better sleep patterns.
Finally, the intense workouts and physical conditioning that athletes endure can cause inflammation and muscle stiffness. As a result, many athletes find that CBD is a natural and effective alternative to over-the-counter pain medications for relieving muscle aches and pains.
Where Do We Go from here?
The World Anti-Doping Agency just announced that it will review its ban on cannabis, due to increased pressure of partners throughout international athletics. But only time will tell. Until then, cannabis will remain prohibited, with the exception of CBD.