Could marijuana be the next performance-enhancing drug?
Some athletes think cannabis can be key to tougher training and faster recovery.
Mike Crawford regularly rides his bike, goes hiking, lifts weights, even spends some time on the wrestling mat. That might not seem a big deal, even for a 45-year-old, except for the debilitating back injury the Marblehead resident suffered in the late 1990s. Crawford, then head wrestling coach at Byfield’s Triton Regional High School, was sparring when he got hit with such a devastating lateral drop that doctors thought they might have to fuse part of his spine to keep the agony at bay. The secret to his recovery, Crawford says, has been marijuana.
Crawford now runs a dog-walking business and smokes most evenings and sometimes during the day. Cannabis doesn’t just ease his shooting nerve pain, he says, it also makes him a better athlete. “It expands your lungs, it helps you train longer, it helps with your recovery,” says Crawford, who played three sports in high school and is now a marijuana activist. “It could actually be a performance enhancer in some sports.”
Crawford isn’t the only one talking about marijuana and athletics. While all major US pro sports leagues except the NHL penalize players for cannabis use, getting high and getting fit are no longer mutually exclusive. Two winters ago, Celtics legend Bill Walton, true to his Deadhead roots, demanded marijuana reform while commentating at an NCAA basketball game. Onetime NFL offensive tackle Eugene Monroe has become a cannabis activist and entrepreneur. And Colorado pro ultramarathoner Avery Collins is sponsored by marijuana companies such as Mary’s Medicinals and Roll-Uh-Bowl.
“People are starting to understand that marijuana can be part of an athletic lifestyle,” says Jim McAlpine, who worked with former NFL running back Ricky Williams to launch Power Plant Fitness, a marijuana-friendly gym and wellness center opening in San Francisco early next year. “You see sports teams and stadiums sponsored by alcohol companies, but alcohol doesn’t play well with sports. I think cannabis will infuse into the athletic community much like alcohol has, but in a more ingrained, sensible way.” McAlpine is the force behind 420 Games, a series of marijuana-themed athletic events that hit eight US cities this year. In 2017, McAlpine says, “I would love to add Boston.”
But does cannabis really boost athletic performance? The jury’s still out, says Marcel Bonn-Miller, a University of Pennsylvania adjunct professor and executive director of the Institute for Research on Cannabinoids, a nonprofit that’s funded through government grants, social impact bonds, and individuals and businesses with ties to the cannabis industry. According to Bonn-Miller, certain kinds of cannabis could decrease depression, chronic pain, and other barriers to exercise, leading to a fitter lifestyle. And since there’s mounting evidence that certain kinds of cannabis can act as anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and neuroprotective agents, marijuana could help athletes recover. That’s why Bonn-Miller is conducting the first-ever study of marijuana’s impact on chronic pain and concussions among football players.
So far, Bonn-Miller says there’s no strong scientific proof that marijuana regulates breathing, increases stamina, or improves concentration (plus youth athletes should definitely stay away, since studies suggest marijuana hurts developing brains). But Bonn-Miller concedes it’s possible evidence for athletic benefits for adults could emerge, especially since exercise and cannabis both trigger the body’s natural “endocannabinoid system” in similar ways. (There’s a reason it’s called a runner’s high.)
The World Anti-Doping Agency bans marijuana use. But should cannabis stay on its prohibited list as a performance-enhancing drug in places where it’s legalized? Crawford, for one, doesn’t think so. “It’s not like steroids,” he says. “I think it’s more like a good pair of sneakers.”