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Weed games: University sports in the age of legal cannabis

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On Oct. 17, marijuana became legal in Canada. Now the most populous country on the planet to legalize the sale of the drug, Canadians from Victoria to St. John's celebrated the landmark event by rushing to pot shops and crashing the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission website. It was a day that changed the course of Canadian history.

The legalization has forced provinces and institutions to adapt and set policy within a framework established by the federal government. Some provinces, like Ontario, have not yet opened sanctioned pot shops. And for the nearly 12,000 student athletes across the country competing under the auspices of U Sports, "tokes" will remain taboo.

Anti-doping watchdogs have remained adamant that athletes in leagues that adhere to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substance list will still be suspended if they're caught with marijuana in their system. This includes U Sports, which has its drug testing administered by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. While the CCES does not test for marijuana out-of-competition, the risk of an athlete using cannabis in a recreational setting and then having the drug remain in their system when in-competition testing occurs has led many within the organization to recommend athletes' complete avoidance of the drug. 

In a May 16 press release, CCES president and CEO Paul Melia warned athletes that the federal government's legalization of marijuana would not impact the drug's position on the banned substance list.

“When cannabis becomes legal in Canada, athletes will have to remember that they are subject to the rules of the Canadian Anti-Doping Program and face the consequences of a doping violation if they test positive for cannabis in competition,” said Melia. “There are steps that athletes can take to reduce the risk of a doping violation, but the most effective approach is to avoid cannabis.”

In March, two Saint Mary's University football players were suspended for failed drug tests. One of the two athletes — quarterback and Atlantic University Sport all-star Kaleb Scott — had marijuana found in his urine sample. The suspension raised questions and concerns about how the governing body of Canadian university sport would respond to the legalization of cannabis.

However, U Sports itself doesn't have a cannabis consumption policy. In an email, U Sports communications coordinator Alan Hudes explained that the organization is subject to the regulations of the Canadian Anti-Doping Program.

According to the CADP, substances on the banned list follow three criteria: they have the potential to enhance performance, they can cause harm to the health of the athlete and they violate the spirit of sport.

On its website, the CCES states that there are "anecdotal accounts of athletes using [cannabis] therapeutically with the intent to improve performance or recovery by managing pain, stress or anxiety."

While they acknowledge the therapeutic benefits of the drug, the CCES also states that habitual use or abuse presents the potential for harm, especially for younger athletes. They're also concerned with the potential liability that would arise with the impairment of athletes during competition.

In an official press release from U Sports, the organization explained that, due to the nature of WADA's structure and self-governance, one country's legislation cannot impact the organization's regulations.

"As WADA is independent of any one country, its code is not affected by the legislative changes in Canada or any other nation," said the press release. "This means cannabis will remain prohibited in competition and at threshold for U Sports athletes in spite of legislative changes made by the Canadian government."

Other drugs prohibited under the World Anti-Doping Code include morphine, oxycodone, fentanyl and heroin, as well as a long list of anabolic steroids.

A number of university athletic departments have responded to marijuana's legalization and U Sports' continued stance on the drug, and how the juxtaposition of the two might affect student athletes.

“The biggest concern with us is the confusion with legalization and what’s actually approved in sport,” said Samantha Ebata, the senior manager of sport science and sport medicine at the University of British Columbia  “There’s a lot of athletes that are just unaware of the difference. So, with legalization, that just means knowing what that means for sporting and the social pressures that go along with that.”

This is increasingly challenging when considering the fact that marijuana is not tested for outside of competition. A university athlete can smoke marijuana, legally, in early August; but, because the drug binds to fat cells in the body, causing a delayed response, it can be detected weeks after it’s ingested. So when the CCES shows up for preseason drug testing in late August, the athlete might still have the substance in their system and face impending suspension. It's a predicament that student athletes and athletic departments will have to reconcile in the coming months and years. 

Pierre Arsenault, the director of athletics and recreation at Mount Allison University and president of Atlantic University Sport, echoed Ebata's concern that student athletes might assume that with its legalization, cannabis will be removed from the banned substance list.

"I think it’s certainly a legitimate concern for the sporting community that there would be assumptions made in that cannabis is now going to come off the banned substance list now that it’s been legalized,” said Arsenault “Just saying, ‘I didn’t know,’ is not going to be a defence for student-athletes.”

Other leagues have also been forced to adapt to the new legislation. The NBA fines players $25,000 after their second positive test for marijuana, followed by game suspensions for subsequent positive tests. Legalization in Canada does not change the NBA's league substance policy. Similarly, the NHL and NFL won't see changes to their substance policies due to marijuana's legalization in Canada. 

Interestingly, the CFL has maintained a relatively lenient drug-testing policy as it doesn't screen for marijuana or other recreational drugs but focuses solely on performance-enhancers. Additionally, as all of the league's teams currently reside in Canada, it doesn't have to reconcile the drug legislation in other country's with its own regulations.

While the drug's legal status will raise a number of issues moving forward, executives at the CCES are hopeful that, through education and training, athletes will understand the dangers and implications of marijuana consumption.

“We hope there isn’t confusion, and I say that because we’ve taken a number of steps in the past six to nine months to try and educate athletes — student athletes in particular — about the change in the legal status and the fact that it has no impact on the substance’s status from a sporting aspect," said the CCES's senior director of sport integrity, Jeremy Luke.

WADA has made efforts to minimize their punishment of recreational marijuana users by raising the threshold of allowable marijuana in an athlete's system to 150 nanograms per millilitre. According to Luke, this has decreased the amount of positive marijuana tests administered by the CCES significantly.

Marijuana's new status as a legal substance in Canada will have long-lasting implications for the country. Both users and non-users will have to adapt to the effects of legalization, while institutions and organizations will be forced to adjust their policies on the substance. But for university athletes in Canada, one thing is abundantly clear: as far as the powers that be are concerned, marijuana remains a banned substance. So while the rest of their colleagues enjoy the benefits of legality, student athletes will be "toking" at their own peril.

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