Rules change on Olympic marijuana testing
It’s been 15 years since Ross Rebagliati won snowboarding’s first Olympic gold medal at the 1998 Winter Games — and then nearly lost that medal after he tested positive for marijuana.
Since then, the drug has become an integral part of Rebagliati’s life. Next month Rebagliati will open a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Whistler, British Columbia, called “Ross’ Gold.” The Canadian has also become a public face for pot-smoking athletes around the globe.
“Anytime somebody gets in trouble for weed I’m the guy the media calls,” Rebagliati, who lives outside Whistler, told USA TODAY Sports. “I went on NBC to defend (Michael) Phelps for smoking responsibly. I told them, Hey, it’s zero calories, zero fat!'”
Now 42, Rebagliati believes that changing attitudes toward marijuana — it’s now legal for medicinal purposes in Canada and 14 U.S. states — justifies the drug’s removal from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances.
Like cocaine and heroin, cannabis is banned during competition by WADA, which oversees drug testing worldwide in Olympic sports.
WADA recently amended its rules on cannabis, raising the threshold for a positive test from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 150 ng/ml. In 1998 at the Nagano Games, Rebagliati recorded a level of 17.8 ng/ml, and argued the test resulted from second-hand smoke, which he still says. Ben Nichols, a spokesperson for WADA, said the raising of the threshold is meant to catch only athletes who smoke during the period of a competition. The drug isn’t prohibited out of competition.
“Our information suggests that many cases do not involve game or event-day consumption,” Nichols said. “The new threshold level is an attempt to ensure that in-competition use is detected and not use during the days and weeks before competition.”
Raising the threshold level to 150 nanograms per milliliter means that an athlete would have to be a “pretty dedicated cannabis consumer” to test positive, according to Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Last year four athletes in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s pool tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the primary ingredient in marijuana. That’s a small percentage of the 2,776 in-competition tests the agency conducted. But one of the athletes, wrestler Stephany Lee, was kept off the Olympic team after testing positive at the Olympic trials.
USOC chief communications officer Patrick Sandusky declined to be interviewed for the story but released a statement that said the USOC is committed to clean competition. “Additionally, we respect WADA’s decision-making expertise and processes – they decide what is banned and what thresholds to apply and we work to ensure that U.S. athletes are appropriately educated,” the statement read.
Although marijuana isn’t viewed to have obvious performance-enhancing qualities, one of the reasons it’s on WADA’s list in the first place is because of the drug’s possible effect during competition. For example, you wouldn’t want a bobsledder driving down an icy track while impaired, said Dr. Matt Fedoruk, USADA’s science director. He adds that the the definition of performance enhancing drugs shouldn’t be limited to “making you stronger and faster and being able to jump higher. It’s how it affects some of the other parameters that are really important like pain or confidence or some of the things that are a bit more difficult to measure or define analytically.”
Athletes sanctioned by the USADA for marijuana generally receive suspensions ranging from three months to a year, depending on the athlete’s case and if there was a past violation and whether the drug was coupled with other banned substances. A three-month suspension can be deferred if an athlete completes an education program.
The International Olympic Committee originally banned drugs like marijuana and cocaine because of their illegality, and because they violate the “spirit of sport.” WADA, created in 1999, follows three criteria in establishing its list of banned substances: performance enhancement, danger to an athlete’s health and violation of the spirit of sport.
Society’s attitudes toward marijuana may have contributed to the timing of WADA’s change, St. Pierre said. He points to Colorado and Washington passing legislation last year to legalize the drug for recreational use.
“So they kind of ask the question … if we really don’t believe overtly that this is causing people to game the system by developing greater athletic skills, shouldn’t we really revisit this,” St. Pierre said.
“It’s kind of hard to imagine that cannabis should be thrown into that mixture (of banned drugs) unless it is still viewed as a moral turpitude,” he added. “Society doesn’t seem to view it anymore as a moral turpitude.”
Attitudes toward the drug vary around the world. “It’s a global prohibited list,” Fedoruk said. “One country doesn’t have the last word per se on inclusion of substances. Globally there’s been some pressure from various stakeholders to address what is the appropriate threshold that you would catch use in competition only of cannabis. I think the change was to try to reflect that more accurately.”
St. Pierre also raised the issue of the anti-inflammatory qualities associated with cannabinoids and whether they could provide some athletes an unfair advantage. Athletes such as former Dallas Cowboys center Mark Stepnoski have said that the drug has helped in recovery after strenuous training. St. Pierre says there’s more scientific research being done that supports those claims.
In the sports that fall under WADA jurisdiction, pot use still accounts for a significant number of violations. According to USADA statistics, of the 147 sanctions since 2008, 28 were from cannabis. Dr. Don Catlin, founder of the UCLA Olympic Analytic Laboratory, said cannabis violations account for a larger number internationally.
In 2003, cannabinoids accounted for 13.9% (378 of 2,716) of all adverse analytical findings (samples that found the presence of a banned substance or method), according to WADA statistics. Only anabolic agents such as testosterone and stimulants surpassed cannabinoids as banned substances found in testing. In 2011, WADA reported 445 violations for cannabis or 7.9% of 5,600 adverse test results.
One of the founders of modern day drug testing, Catlin said there was a long-running debate about marijuana during the early years of testing for banned substances.
“Some people felt it wasn’t correct to use a PED test to try and clean up the image of sport,” Catlin said. “In the end the IOC decided you should test for those kinds of drugs.”
Positive marijuana tests can have a serious impact on athletes lives. Last summer American judo athlete Nick Delpopolo was sent home from the London Olympics after testing positive. Delpopolo, who said the test was a result of eating baked goods laced with marijuana, declined comment for this story.
Lee, the wrestler, was banned for one year for her positive test last summer. It was her second doping violation. In a radio interview after her second positive, Lee said she used marijuana for medicinal purposes, but said she had stopped smoking two weeks before competition.
“It’s hard,” Lee said. “I’m home watching the opening ceremonies on TV.”
In 2003, a positive test for cannabis drove downhill mountain biker Gary Houseman out of his sport entirely. A BMX prodigy, Houseman became the first American in four years to win a stop on the UCI World Cup when he won in Grouse Mountain, British Columbia. But when he tested positive for marijuana — and faced a $2000 fine and a year suspension — Houseman retired at age 23.
“I just decided to move on,” Houseman said.
While he can’t speak for WADA’s reasoning for the change, Fedoruk says he thinks the goal is to focus on more “potent ergogenic drugs such as EPO, human growth hormone and testosterone.
“Enhancing our capabilities in doing our job better to being able to detect those is always a goal of the anti-doping movement. To the extent that perhaps resources can be reallocated because countries maybe aren’t spending as much on cannabis, I think it’s a potentially good thing.”
Rebagliati, who retired from snowboard competition in 2000, is open about his feelings on the subject.
“Everybody knew I was a pot smoker after the Olympics,” he said. “I said I smoked and I still smoke but I never denied it.”