In 2013, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta alerted the world to cannabidiol (CBD) and its anti-seizure effects for epilepsy patients in his documentary “Weed.” In 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will make CBD into a household name. Starting Jan. 1, WADA removed CBD from its banned substances list, allowing athletes to use the cannabis compound which offers relief from inflammation, pain, anxiety, psychosis, seizures, and spasms without risk of league suspension or loss of sponsors.
With all the curative benefits it would seem common sense to remove CBD from WADA’s prohibited substances list. Although professional athletes will tell you the pressure was on, WADA says it happened as a result of intense study and research.
Michael Backes, author of “Cannabis Pharmacy,” sees WADA’s policy change as somewhat of a no-brainer. “It’s not performance enhancing, it’s performance enabling,” he offers of CBD with a small chuckle. “It’s really a great recovery drug for athletic endeavors and it may have significant neural protection capabilities for contact sports and so I think it’s just a smart move that just shows somebody is actually practicing medicine.”
Dr. Kent Crowley is not so sure research had anything to do with it. “They are getting so much pressure from athletes saying, ‘Why are you loading me up with all these fucking drugs?’,” he says, noting that’s the wording he hears from the pro athletes he helps to manage with regards to their health care.
WADA, WADA, WADA
At the start of each year, WADA begins its annual review in January and releases its prohibited list of banned substances in September. “Annually, the Prohibited List review involves a very extensive stakeholder consultation process over the course of nine months,” said Director General Olivier Niggli in his official statement on Sept. 29, 2017. “In reviewing the List, experts examine such sources as: scientific and medical research; trends; and, intelligence gathered from law enforcement and pharmaceutical companies in order to stay ahead of those that endeavor to cheat the system.”
According to a WADA spokesperson, the list is harmonized across all sports and a substance may be considered for inclusion if it meets two of the following three criteria: it has the potential to enhance sport performance; it represents a health risk to the athletes; and it violates the spirit of sport.
In developing the list each year, WADA noted “that the List is not static but evolves based on new scientific evidence; therefore, WADA maintains dialogue with athletes, administrators, scientific experts, and other stakeholders and closely follows the literature in this area to obtain new evidence and information as it becomes available.”
Jeff Novitzky, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) vice president of athlete health and performance, was not surprised that WADA changed their policy on CBD “because they are reasonable, they have scientists that look at these issues and they have to realize that CBD doesn’t fit under any of these guidelines that we have. The only reason you would be prohibiting CBD would [be] because of a moral issue and I think they realized they aren’t trying to be the moral police here. They are looking at performance-enhancing benefits and health and safety issues.”
Formerly a U.S. federal agent for two decades, Novitzky joined the UFC two years ago to oversee its drug testing program. He sees WADA’s move as a positive development as most UFC athletes are already using CBD. “Right now, as it stands, we advise most of our athletes if they do use CBD, to discontinue using it during fight week to make sure there is none in their system during an in-competition test. But beginning Jan. 1, 2018 there won’t be a need for that, they won’t have to worry about that at all,” says Novitzky, who notes the most common question he gets from UFC athletes has to do with the use of CBD and cannabis.
That’s probably because WADA hasn’t completely banned THC, cannabis’ psychoactive compound. “A few years ago, WADA, through studies and their scientists, determined someone who has low levels of THC in their system is neither getting a performance-enhancing benefit nor is there really a health and safety aspect unless those levels get really high,” explains Novitzky. “So, they took their threshold from 15 nanograms per milliliter and upped it to 150 so now it must exceed
150 ng/ml of THC in order to trigger a positive test.”
Many attribute WADA’s change in CBD policy to pressure from athletes. The most prominent being UFC fighter Nate Diaz who vaped from a CBD pen during a post-fight press conference Aug. 20, 2016.
“My speculation is that probably most of the pressure did come from athletes who were starting to make these very overt associations with cannabis use. Like that boxer who smoked his CBD pen with kind of reckless abandon,” explains professional cyclist Teal Stetson-Lee, who is an athlete ambassador for Kynd Cannabis Company. “And I would throw myself into the mix, too, by just making the statement that I believe in this (CBD) and I am going to partner with a cannabis company even though it’s technically illegal in my sport. I will play by your rules, but I am not going to stand by on the sidelines. I think there are more athletes who are starting to do that.”
Stetson-Lee thinks Diaz’s actions helped kick off some of the dialogue, but she is interested in how it translated so rapidly into policy change. “I was surprised that it happened so quickly because there has been such pushback from governing authorities for the most part when it comes to cannabis as a substance for athletes to make use of. I think I was anticipating there would be some deeper, longer conversations that would have to happen before there was some receptivity,” says Stetson-Lee, 31, who uses CBD topicals and tinctures. “The thing about CBD is that it’s relatively easy for people to get behind once you start talking about the benefits of it and how it affects your body and, most importantly, that it doesn’t have any psychoactive effects to it. It’s the psychoactive part, the THC piece, that seems to have people all freaked out. That seems to be what makes everyone the most nervous and everyone has their panties in a bunch about.”
UFC fighter Gina Mazany, 29, has a theory of her own as to why WADA lifted the CBD ban. “I feel like it’s a conspiracy theory. There are so many ways that CBD can benefit everyone in one way or another, but if people are using a product that they aren’t going to make money off of then they are not going to allow it, or make it seem like an evil thing,” says Mazany, who uses a 1:1 ratio CBD/THC vape pen that helps her with anxiety and sleep.
“I think it got lifted because the beneficial information about CBD began to surface especially in the MMA world. Because of what we put our bodies through, it’s not normal and it’s ideally not healthy. So why can’t we have this extra something to help us recover and stay healthy and keep the brain damage in line. I am not surprised, I am actually surprised it hasn’t been sooner.”
Former NFL player Kyle Turley, 42, was surprised WADA didn’t go further. “With so many athletes advocating for cannabis period, not just CBD, the FDA/DEA are just falling in line with what the government is saying. The DEA has even said on their Twitter account and websites that CBD is not like marijuana.”
Turley continues, “Everybody’s tune is changing. I was just in DC a couple of weeks ago doing some lobbying and all these guys are saying: ‘I’ll tell you what I am for. I am for the Charlotte’s Web thing and the whole CBD deal.’ So, OK, you are for guys who like to take pictures of themselves in skinny jeans in Colorado. Well this is about marijuana and this is about this plant and that is the base level, tip of the iceberg to what is capable in this plant, period. It doesn’t surprise me, it’s par for the course as to what I have seen thanks to the advocacy of so many great Americans over these years.”
IS THE NFL OUT IN THE COLD?
“Of everything I am seeing and hearing anecdotally, there seems to be great advantages to professional athletes in sports like ours. I could foresee it for football players, too, who are constantly getting nicks and dings on their body, having swelling and in pain, being able to benefit from it,” notes UFC’s Novitzky.
But in spite of the benefits and lifting the ban this month, Turley is not so sure his NFL brethren will have the chance to use CBD anytime soon. “They (NFL) will fall in line with the federal government. They won’t follow WADA. The NFL is its own deal and it runs as the government runs, as their track record has spoken to. I think that when the government finally comes out and says that CBD is OK then I think the NFL will come out officially for it,” says Turley, who launched a cannabis neuroprotectant line called Neuro Armour last fall.
Turley is correct in his assertion. The NFL does not plan to follow WADA’s CBD recommendation. According to an NFL spokesperson, “The NFL and NFL Players Association have comprehensive programs and policies addressing both PEDs as well as illegal drugs and substances of abuse. In that respect, we rely on independent medical advisors who regularly review the most current research and scientific data, and there is more to learn about cannabinoid compounds as they may relate to their potential treatment of acute and chronic pain. This is an area of research we are looking to develop further, along with the NFLPA, to determine whether those substances could be used as an effective and safe pain-management tool for players. Currently, however, our advisors have not recommended making a change or revisiting our collectively-bargained policy and approach related to marijuana and cannabinoids.”
Dr. Crowley, who invented the Trokie, a medicinal cannabis lozenge, isn’t sure why the NFL hasn’t seen the light. “The NFL is taking great hits at realizing this sport may disappear in 10 or 15 years and that’s a multi-billion-dollar industry,” says Dr. Crowley, who lays most of the fault at the feet of the federal government. “I wish that these wealthy athletes would all put together a class action suit against the freakin’ federal government that, in essence, says: You are not only preventing my ability to protect myself against a sport that has demonstrated clear damage to my health, but you are preventing me from accessing an adaptogenetic herb that was used for 70 years and one of the top three prescriptions that were issued in the United States from 1850 to the 1930s. It’s recognized as a pharmaceutical in over 26 countries around the world. Why are you preventing us from access to something that has a broad therapeutic index, minimal toxicity, if at all, to help me protect myself from trauma in my profession?”
LET’S CALL IT INJURED PRESERVE
CBD offers many valuable benefits for athletes including faster muscle recovery post-workout, aid in relieving pre-competition anxiety, help with sleep, and it acts as a neuroprotectant. But its biggest potential benefit will be in helping athletes heal from their injuries and get back in competition more quickly.
Stetson-Lee cites topicals as the most effective for her post-recovery training as a professional mountain biker and cyclocross racer. She started using Kynd Cannabis Company’s CBD tincture and salve post-workout to “recover and heal quicker, stay fresher, and help my body relax more so I sleep better, which is huge.”
UFC fighter Mazany uses CBD for anxiety citing its main benefit as “knowing I am dealing with medical issues without using a chemically processed substitute. I don’t have to take a Xanax or I have depression and I don’t have to take Prozac. I used to take Prozac and it made me numb to everything. To each their own, and whatever people want to take that’s their prerogative, but I noticed once I started using CBD it helped a lot with that. I still get anxiety thinking about my fights, and it helps me to sleep and calm down.”
As for injuries, both Stetson-Lee and Mazany believe not being able to use CBD was a missed opportunity. Stetson-Lee didn’t know about CBD when she had one of her most serious crashes in 2012 which resulted in a mangled face and severe concussion. “It would have been amazing to have those products at that time. All the studies being done right now as far as CBD and brain trauma is pretty astounding. That would be my first go-to and my first recommendation for anybody who has any kind of head trauma,” explains Stetson-Lee.
Mazany also wishes she could have used CBD during her most recent fight to help with an injury she sustained in practice. “Before my last fight, I broke my foot five weeks out. It was a good opportunity for me and a good fight for me, so I didn’t want to miss it. One of the things I really wanted to include in my healing was CBD. I was doing everything from drinking bone broth to laser treatment. One of the options was putting a CBD ointment on it and it’s sad I wasn’t able to use that. Everything went fine, I won my fight and I was happy but it’s something that’s not performance enhancing, it’s just beneficial for athletes in prolonging our careers,” Mazany points out.
There are also benefits for athletes after their careers have ended. “CBD has played an important role in allowing me to personally manage pain, cope with CTE-like symptoms, improve my overall health and eliminate the need for prescription opioids that nearly cost me my life due to long-term use side effects,” explains Turley, who played five seasons for the New Orleans Saints, a year with the St. Louis Rams, and for two years with the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring in 2007.
Yet, all the athletes in this story will tell you the cannabis conversation is far from over. Research has shown CBD is most effective in an entourage effect which would include THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. “It still is a little complicated because the most effective CBD products are paired with THC and that’s really important to consider,” imparts Stetson-Lee. “Pure CBD generally doesn’t have the same effectiveness because the THC, and I am by no means a chemist, is fat soluble. It penetrates better and is the catalyst for allowing CBD to then penetrate the body’s cannabinoid receptors. So, in that respect, it’s still going to be tricky. Just because CBD is no longer on the banned substance list that doesn’t necessarily open the floodgates for full cannabis use. Only 100 percent CBD products can be used and that’s not necessarily the whole solution. If THC is still something people are squeamish about, then the conversation is far from over.”
Turley thinks that’s why the NFL has been mum on the subject. “Personally, I think more football players are calling for full legalization, full implementation of this plant because CBD is the tip of the iceberg and in football you are dealing with everyday accounts of serious injury and the need to get back on the field to compete fast.
“Athletes in this discussion on the football side are pressing more for total legalization, more than the other sports who are just saying give us CBD. Football athletes are saying we need more than that. CBD is a tremendous benefit but with THC included it’s supercharged and you need that in dealing with sports like football,” says Turley.
Total legalization for athletes may not be as far away as Turley thinks. “I know Nevada (Nevada Athletic Commission) had talked last January about considering not just taking CBD off the prohibited list, but also taking THC and marijuana off as well,” says Novitzky. “I initially had some concerns about the health and safety issues. You would not want someone walking into the Octagon high on marijuana. But the argument I got on the other side from them was you wouldn’t want someone walking into the Octagon drunk but we aren’t testing for traces of alcohol in their system. We could see that happening before too long,” he says of a full legalization for athletes.
A NEW DAY
Even though lifting the ban on CBD is progress and by all accounts will be beneficial to athletes, it’s still a situation with many caveats. “Anecdotally, I can’t argue with all of the benefits of CBD being available to athletes but because of the lack of any legitimate trials and because of the legal status of CBD right now I tend to stay away from making any recommendations,” offers Novitzky. “But on a personal level, notwithstanding the lack of clinical trials, at least anecdotally, my feelings are it’s a lot helluva better alternative than using synthetically made drugs.”
Stetson-Lee also finds plenty to be optimistic about. “It will definitely create some interest in that direction because the sport’s governing body is now opening that door. People will be able to talk about it and feel like it’s a little less taboo,” she says of CBD. “Athletes will be passing products back and forth amongst their peers and recommending different CBD products that they are using for muscle relaxation or reducing pain and it won’t be quite so hush-hush. So that is a positive and I definitely have to celebrate that.”
Turley is more cynical on the subject and still sees full legal utilization for NFL athletes as far off. “It is about this plant and making it free and this is the opportunity. Unfortunately, it has to come at the image of capitalism and that’s all that our government understands. As this industry grows and they see the projected $700-billion industry rise over the next five years that’s when things will actually change,” he surmises.
Dr. Crowley is also less celebratory than Novitzky and Stetson-Lee, boiling it down to the practical application of science. “I think it’s criminal that our government continues to ignore the National Academy of Sciences report on unequivocal evidence supporting its use on at least three different conditions, medically, which already discount the claim that schedule 1 status indicates that there is no medically recognized value. Someone is going to have to come to clean here at some point.”