In one of his classic stand-up routines, the late, great Robin Williams joked “the only way [marijuana] is a performance-enhancing drug is if there’s a big fucking Hershey bar at the end of the run.”
A funny line, to be sure. But, as it turns out, Williams joke was just that: A joke. The truth of matter is that cannabis may well be drug that helps elite athletes.
Since cannabis is a Schedule 1 substance, according to federal government, it is difficult for scientists to research this field, so much of the data is anecdotal. But there is no doubt in the science community that cannabis is an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and neuroprotective substance. These benefits, and a myriad of others, would certainly aid an athlete.
“The endocannabinoid system works like endorphins,” says Andrea Giuffrida, an associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Giuffrida’s studies demonstrate that after high-intensity treadmill running, subjects have higher levels of naturally occurring endocannabinoids in their bloodstream. Just as endorphins help you push through an intense workout, endocannabinoids could increase your pain threshold to do the same.
The debate received renewed attention over the weekend when former NBA all-star Chauncey Billups appeared on ESPN to discuss marijuana. His belief is that some of his teammates played better under the influence of marijuana. Said Billups:
“I honestly played with players – I’m not going to name names, of course I’m not – I wanted them to smoke. They played better like that. Big time anxiety, a lot of things can be affected – [marijuana] brought ‘em down a bit, it helped them focus in a little bit on the game plan. I needed them to do that. I would rather them do that than, sometimes, drink.”
And it’s just not mainstream professional sports.
Ross Rebagliati in 1998 won the first ever Olympic gold medal for snowboarding. He was stripped of his medal after being tested positive for marijuana. Rebagliati eventually got the gold medal back after it was ruled marijuana was not “performance enhancing.”
Today, the snowboarding legend thinks differently.
“From my own experience, I’ve found that it helps me really focus on my workouts—not just when I’m there [at the gym], but also to get me there in the first place,” he said. “It gives me that extra little bit of inspiration and motivation to get out and do it again for the millionth time.”
Other elite athletes who use cannabis as a performance-enhancing aid include:
“People are starting to understand that marijuana can be part of an athletic lifestyle,” according to Jim McAlpine, owner of Power Plant Fitness, a marijuana-friendly gym in San Francisco. McAlpine has also created the 420 Games, a series of marijuana-themed athletic events.