Courtland Milloy
Courtland Milloy
Local Columnist

For pro athletes, the risks of smoking pot are high — but so are the benefits

Whenever a professional athlete is suspended for smoking marijuana, as happened with two players on Washington’s football team recently, a question usually arises: Why would they risk so much for so little? Turns out, the benefits of taking a few puffs aren’t so little.

At the low doses reportedly consumed by the athletes, “smoked cannabis can decrease anxiety, fear, depression and tension,” three researchers wrote in the November issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine. “Furthermore, cannabinoids play a major role in the extinction of fear memories by interfering with learned adversive behaviors. Athletes who experienced traumatic events in their career could benefit from such an effect.”

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Of course, marijuana use is banned in professional sports. And the researchers strongly support the World Anti-Doping Agency’s decision to do so. The authors are Marilyn A. Huestis and Irene Mazzoni, both researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and Olivier Rabin, a doctor at the World Anti-Doping Agency. Those aren’t institutions known for extolling the benefits of marijuana.

Nevertheless, the researchers went so far as to note: “In adolescents and young adults, cannabis also helps in coping with negative moods and emotional distress.”

Results like that could give marijuana the aura of a wonder drug.

And yet, there it sits near the top of the WADA’s Prohibited List, second only to steroids as the banned substance most frequently detected by drug tests. Whether marijuana should be on the list is the subject of much debate, and the researchers’ conclusions are not likely to be the last word.

“Athletes under the influence of cannabis indicate that their thoughts flow more easily and their decision making and creativity is enhanced,” the researchers wrote. “Health professionals have encountered athletes including gymnasts, divers, football players and basketball players who claim smoking cannabis before play helps them focus better.”

But, they concluded, “Much additional research is needed to determine the effects of cannabis on athletic performance.”

To make it on to the list of banned substances, a drug must be considered “performance enhancing,” pose a health risk and in someway contribute to a “violation of the spirit of the sport.” Their caveats notwithstanding, the researchers say marijuana fills the bill on all counts.

The health risks cited are already pretty well known, including an increased risk of lung cancer and accidents and the potential for abuse and addiction.

“Acute effects of cannabis include increased heart rate, followed in many individuals by hypotension, dizziness and disorientation . . . and sometimes psychosis, panic reactions and paranoia,” they wrote. “Additional effects that could harm the athlete during competition are loss of vigilance, increased reaction times and short term memory loss.”

As for marijuana use violating the “spirit of the sport,” there was no way to scientifically measure that. But the researchers did note that good sportsmanship requires respect for rules and laws. And since marijuana is illegal, athletes who smoked pot were breaking the law.

On the other hand, the anti-doping agency’s rules do not prohibit players from smoking marijuana during the off-season. Washington tight end Fred Davis and left tackle Trent Williams had apparently smoked marijuana during the four-month NFL lockout this year and again once the season began. Both were suspended for the remainder of the season.

Williams and Davis are elite players. Maybe what got them up for the game was the weed that brought them down.

“Clearly, cannabis induces euphoria, improves self-confidence, induces relaxation and steadiness and relieves the stress of competition,” the researchers wrote. “Cannabis improves sleep and recovery after an event, reduces anxiety and fear and aids the forgetting of negative events such as bad falls and so forth. Cannabis increases risk taking and this perhaps improves training and performance, yielding a competitive edge. Cannabis increases appetite, yielding increased caloric intake and body mass. Cannabis enhances sensory perception, decreases respiratory rate and increases heart rate; increased bronchodilation may improve oxygenation of the tissues. Finally, cannabis is an analgesic that could permit athletes to work through injuries and pain induced by training fatigue.”

Maybe that’s not worth risking a multimillion-dollar sports contract, to say nothing of getting busted. But clearly there’s a lot more to “getting stoned” than meets the eye.

 
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