14 August 2023

Cannabis: location can determine sanction

• Twelve athletes from nine countries, competing in seven sports, were involved in anti-doping proceedings that came to light during the week ending 11 August 2023.

Two recent cases have illustrated that sanctions following a positive test for Cannabis can vary wildly, depending on where an athlete is based. Cannabis, along with Cocaine, Diamorphine (Heroin) and MDMA (Ecstasy), are prohibited in competition only and were re-classified of ‘substances of abuse’ under the 2021 World Anti-Doping Code.

Article 10.2.4 of the Code (click to open).

This reclassification allows for a reduced ban if an athlete can prove that their use of a ‘substance of abuse’ was unrelated to sport. If an athlete returns an adverse analytical finding (AAF – or ‘positive test’) for one of these four substances in competition (i.e. after 11:59pm on the day before they are scheduled to compete), Article 10.2.4 of the Code requires them to demonstrate that use took place outside of competition and was unrelated to performance. If they are able to do this, then a three month ban is implemented, reduced to one month if they complete a treatment programme.

The requirement for proof that use is unrelated to sporting performance has led to differing approaches from anti-doping organisations (ADOs), especially where Cannabis is concerned. Can Cannabis be considered to enhance performance in Boxing? How about in Rugby Union?

Austrian Boxer Paul Haas was sanctioned with a two year ban following an AAF for Cannabis on 9/12/22. The Austrian anti-doping rights commission (ÖADR) ruled that the 20 year old ‘could not provide sufficient evidence that the substance was ingested or used outside of competition and not in connection with athletic performance’. 

New Zealand Super Rugby player Isaia Walker-Leawere is eligible to compete after serving a backdated one month ban that ended on 5 August, following a 13 May AAF for Cannabis. The 26 year old blamed smoking Cannabis with friends on 10 May for his AAF. Nowhere in the Decision was he required to provide proof of his explanation.

“We don’t believe that cannabis is performance-enhancing”, said Drug Free Sport New Zealand (DFSNZ) CEO Nick Paterson. “Getting Mr Walker-Leawere Substance of Abuse support and back into sport after serving his sanction is the most practical outcome and supports long term athlete health and wellbeing. We’ve advocated to remove cannabis from the Prohibited List for over 15 years and will continue to do so. However, while cannabis remains on the Prohibited List, the best approach to avoiding a positive test is to avoid using it.”

It would appear that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) agrees with DFSNZ. In 2022, following submissions from three national anti-doping organisations (NADOs) and one international sporting federation, WADA initiated a review of whether Cannabis should remain included on the 2023 Prohibited List. Interestingly, it concluded that ‘the current body of objective evidence does not support THC enhancement of physiological performance, while the potential for performance enhancement through neuropsychological effects still cannot be excluded’.

Yet despite this apparent acknowledgement that Cannabis use is unlikely to enhance performance, any athlete that returns an AAF for Cannabis is required to demonstrate that their use is unrelated to sporting performance. In any case, WADA also concluded that the other two of its three criteria for inclusion on the List were also met. It found that Cannabis use presents a health risk to athletes and that it violates the ‘spirit of sport’. This final, catch-all clause gives WADA the freedom to place almost any substance onto its Prohibited List.

Between September 2021 and August 2023, The SII Anti-Doping Monitor has logged 55 anti-doping cases involving Cannabis. The differing sanctioning approaches taken by Austria and New Zealand are not an anomaly. Counties such as Russia and Iran (for example), which have strict anti-drug laws, routinely issue two year bans for ADRVs involving Cannabis. 

The detection limit for Cannabis in urine was raised from 15ng/mL to 180ng/mL in 2013. WADA’s logic behind this was to ensure that only athletes who ‘have consumed significant quantities of THC close to In-competition Doping Control or are chronic users’ return an AAF. 

Athletes in countries with strict anti-drug laws are therefore placed in a difficult situation. Admission to and evidence of use infers that they are a chronic user, which could lead to incrimination.

In June 2022, three Horse Jumping athletes were successful in halving two year bans issued to them following AAFs for Cannabis. All three denied using Cannabis at all, arguing that their AAFs must be due to exposure to Cannabis smoke at a hotel Shisha bar during an event in Morocco. 

Two of the three athletes were from Qatar, which mandates strict penalties for drug possession and use. The international equestrian federation (FEI) published summaries (links are at the bottom of this page) of the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) findings. The full Decisions have never been made public. 

There is no debate that anybody who returns an AAF for Cannabis should be prevented from competing, due to safety concerns. There is an ongoing debate about whether Cannabis can be performance enhancing in certain sports disciplines. A similar debate exists around Alcohol and Caffeine, which are not prohibited. Yet Cannabis falls within the same sanctioning category as Cocaine, a stimulant.

Under the Code, an athlete can serve a ban ranging from between one month and two years for use of either substance. It would appear that in some cases, recreational Cannabis users are being sanctioned with two year bans because they either lack proof that use was recreational, or do not want to incriminate themselves. A potential solution might be a standard six month ban in Cannabis cases where athletes cannot prove recreational use, which can be scaled up to two years if an ADO can prove use was intended to enhance performance.

Please continue to send any cases we may have missed or suggestions through to the editor by clicking here. Also, if you’re an athlete, national anti-doping organisation (NADO) or other Results Management Authority and you’d like us to cover a case that you’re involved with, please get in touch! Also – a reminder. The SII Anti-Doping Monitor only features confirmed AAFs (‘positive tests’) or confirmed anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs).

Decision links

Paul Haas (ÖADR Decision)

Mamorolla Tjoka (SAIDS Sanction List, full Decision);

Dillian Whyte (Athlete Statement, Matchroom Boxing Statement, VADA’s incorporation of Whyte into its testing programme); 

Isaia Walker-Leawere (DFSNZ Statement, full Decision);

Agnes Jeruto Barsosio, Rodgers Kwemoi (AIU List of Provisional Suspensions);

Felice Burchi (NADO Italia Statement);

Issamade Asinga (AIU List of Provisional Suspensions, Athlete Statement);

Minor swimmer (NADA India Sanction List);

Dr. Margarita Ratsyuk (Yakhontova) (RUSADA Statement);

Vitaly Ivanov (RUSADA Statement)

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