Over the last little while, I have been amused at the discussions generated by an admission from an athlete that he smoked cannabis.
This, in a nutshell, is the situation as I see it:
- Michael Phelps, an athlete with 8 Olympic blood medals, is photographed inhaling from a marijuana pipe.
- Following the publication of the photo, he admits to cannabis use.
- This creates negative publicity: from dismay over an again-tainted role model (he faced a drunk-driving charge earlier), to the discussion of ‘recreational use of cannabis’, to calls that he be stripped of his medals.
- The athlete issues an apology.
- Public debate continues – but not only does it not look like the athlete will not be stripped of his medals, it looks like he will be eligible to continue to compete in athletics!
THIS IS RIDICULOUS!!! WRONG DEBATE!!!
While I have some very strong opinions (sic) about the use of illegal drugs – recreational or otherwise – this is not the post where I would like to explore them. I’ll be glad to oblige later.
The ‘legal status’ of cannabis should not be the main focus of public debate about any athlete admitting to smoking cannabis. The debate should be about how to treat an athlete who admits to using a performance-enhancing drug, after the competition is over…
After all, cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug!
There are several active chemicals in cannabis which have medicinal effects. One of the two main ones is Beta-Caryophyllene, an anti-inflammatory which may be very useful in fighting immune system diseases. Yet, I would like to focus here on the other one – cannabidiol, which turns into THC under some conditions and into quinine under others. THC is the ‘active’ ingredient in cannabis, which gives people the ‘high’ associated with its use.
THC, of course, is known to trigger the release of dopamine – the very word from which ‘doping’, as in ‘using performance-enhancing drugs’, comes!
In a very real way, by triggering the release of dopamine, THC affects the endorphins (natural pain-killers) and serotonin levels in the brain, both immediatelly and in the long term. These two effects, in my never-humble-opinion, classify it as a ‘prformance-enhancing-drug’!
Cannabis creates a temporary high – that is true, and that is why it is illegal in many jurisdictions. THC blocs pain-perceptions by causing the brain to produce too much dopamine, which numbs one to pain and causes a euphorea.
Even after the ‘high’ associated with cannabis use is gone, not all of this chemical is metabolized. Some of the THC gets stored in a person’s fatty tissues, where it stays inactive for weeks – perhaps months. When a person is in a situation of great pressure or stress, their body releases adrenalin (and related hormones). This ‘under-stress-hormone coctail’ triggers a chemical reaction which causes the stored-up THC to be released into the body. And, yes, this has the same physical effect on the body as if the person had just toked up!
In other words, cannabis can produce the immediate, ‘short-term’ effect of a ‘dopamine high’ even months after it was used. It’s called a ‘marijuana flash’.
Also, it has been medically demonstrated that people with low serotonin levels feel pain much more easily and much more acutely. (This is especially true of people suffering from depression.) When the serotonin levels are increased, the person’s long-term pain threshold goes up significantly.
Cannabis effectively raises the serotonin levels in that brain. That is why it has consistently been found effective in treating medical conditions involving dopamine-serotonin balance: migraines, melancholia, loss of appetite, nausea, pain – both topical and systemic, insomnia…and is used in treating very serious psychiatric conditions, like dementia and schizophrenia. This very real, long-term effect is why cannabis has been prized since the times of ancient Egypt!
So, let us consider these effects on an athlete who had, in the past, used cannabis.
The athlete now has an overall higher tolerance to pain than is natural – so he can push himself harder during training than his peers. This will necessarily result in achieving an artificially high physical condition, one the athlete could not have attained without the use of cannabis. Even if there were no THC left in his body by the time of the competition, the athlete would still have used performance enhancing drugs to achieve his physical condition, making any competition unfair.
Perhaps even more importantly, if there are still even small amounts of THC in the athlete’s system, the stress of a high-level contest, the ‘competitive juices’ that flood an athlete’s body, will ‘flush them out’. Now, this athlete has a flood of extra dopamines in his blood stream!
In a very real sense, the athlete’s own body released the ‘stored-up dope’!
Unless I am greatly mistaken, competing while ‘doped up’ is against the rules…
Now, back to Mr. Phelps:
Since he has admitted to cannabis use, he had – knowingly or unknowingly – used drugs to enhance his performance. Therefore, it would be unjust to other athletes if he were allowed to compete again.
The only question remains: did he use cannabis BEFORE he won 14 Olympic medals? If the answer is ‘YES’, then he must indeed be stripped of each and every one of them. Even if unintentionally, he was ‘doping’…
It has nothing to do with ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ drugs. It has nothing to do with making ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choices. It has everything to do with fair play!