Everything an Athlete Needs to Know About Cannabis Testing

The world was shocked after news of sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson’s disqualification from participating in the 2021 Summer Olympics after she tested positive for THC. Not only is THC not a performance-enhancing drug, but Richardson consumed cannabis legally, during a break from competition. Still, rules are rules, and Richardson bowed out gracefully.

What happened to Richardson has many athletes wondering: Is there anything we can do to change the rules given the shifting status of weed? To answer that question, one needs to learn a little more about cannabis testing in athletics.

How Cannabis Tests Work

There are six different types of drug testing methods: oral, urine, blood, hair, perspiration and breath. Every test but breathalyzers can reveal the presence of cannabis in an athlete’s system, but some tests are more sensitive than others. Most often, athletes are subject to urine tests, which will detect cannabis up to 10 hours after use. Unfortunately, some athletes may be asked to submit blood or hair samples, which could signal the presence of cannabinoids weeks or months after an athlete’s most recent smoke session.

These days, there are a number of at-home drug testing solutions available to make testing easier in informal settings. To use these kits, athletes collect their own samples; in some cases, the kits can provide immediate feedback regarding the presence of cannabinoids, and in other cases, users must send their samples into a laboratory for advanced testing.

In professional sports, athletes must provide their samples in the presence of a testing official. This is to ensure that the athlete collects the right amount and type of sample and to prevent any tampering with the sample. The samples are then sent to a trusted lab, and the results are reported to the sport’s governing body — like the International Olympic Committee or the National Football League. The repercussions for the presence of cannabinoids are subject to the rules established by that governing body.

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How Cannabis Lingers

At most, a cannabis high will last about 10 hours, but drug tests can detect evidence of cannabis use for months afterward. The reason for this lies in how the body metabolizes cannabis compounds.

After an athlete visits a dispensary in Las Vegas and partakes of some pot, the THC within the weed binds to endocannabinoid receptors around the body, making the athlete high. However, as time passes, the body begins to break down the THC molecule into THC metabolites, which start to abate the stoned sensations. Those metabolites are fat-soluble, meaning the body can and does store them inside fat around the body. Then, when an athlete takes advantage of their fat deposits for energy, the metabolites are released into the bodily system, where they can be detected by drug tests.

The more an athlete uses cannabis, the more metabolites will be stored in their fat, and the more likely they are to fail a drug test even months after the last time they got stoned. This is why it is so crucial for professional athletes to avoid cannabis consumption entirely — or why it is increasingly necessary to change the rules of professional sports organizations to permit recreational and medical cannabis use.

How to Change the Rules

Already, some sports organizations have recognized the evolution in both public perception and legal designation of cannabis. For example, the National Hockey League has no punishment for the presence of THC, but athletes that are found to have consistently high levels of THC in their system are encouraged to seek help for substance abuse. Major League Baseball disciplines players for possessing weed in the ballpark or otherwise during professional business, but marijuana is no longer banned the way other controlled substances are.

American sports associations are changing their rules in response to shifting laws, which are changing as a result of the American public’s attitude toward the drug. Legalization of cannabis at the federal level would likely compel many other sports associations to update their stance on marijuana use — and it could influence the reputation of the drug at the international level, too. Athletes and fans tired of the outdated ban on cannabis need to advocate for cannabis reform at the national level and protest organizations that continue to penalize performers for partaking of a safe, legal and sometimes medically necessary substance.

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