Cannabis and sports might not seem like they mix. But for some athletes, the drug is an integral part of their success.
Original article published on VICE by Deana Bianco May 26, 2020
On a typical Saturday, at 4:30 am, Boulder, Colorado-based competitive ultramarathoner Flavie Dokken takes 5mg of Wana Recreational Tarts, puts on her running shoes, and heads out for a five-hour run. But Dokken is not your typical stoner, she uses cannabis as part of her workout routine and she is sponsored by Wana Brands, a cannabis company that produces cannabis-infused products. Dokken told Vice that the gummies help her tune into her breathing. Although Dokken uses THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive element of cannabis) during training, she stops using it a week before race day because of drug testing.
“Active lifestyle” might not be a set of words commonly associated with cannabis use. But cannabis companies are trying to change that by sponsoring athletes and athletic teams, getting them to post photos of products on their Instagram grids or put brand stickers on their athletic equipment, in order to gain visibility with the athletes’ fans.
Brands like Nike, Saucony, and New Balance, synonymous with the running industry, do not allow their athletes to be associated with cannabis. But that doesn’t mean they never partake. Dokken said she knows of a handful who do. Not only are they secretive about their use, but they also avoid affiliating with her for fear of guilt by association. She said that these athletes, “won’t follow me on Instagram,” but she also states that when she wears her Wana gear on the trails in Colorado, “people give me a high-five, which is awesome.”
Even as big brands don’t want to talk about cannabis use, it is increasingly officially sanctioned for competitive professional and amateur athletes: In 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Code removed CBD from their list of banned substances, and allows an athlete to have THC in their system during a random out-of-competition drug test. But THC is still a prohibited substance for post-race or in-competition drug tests; this all means athletes are fine to use cannabis during the off-season and even during training, but cannot compete with the drug in their system.
In 2018, Canada legalized marijuana with the Cannabis Act, which prohibits athletes from being sponsored by cannabis companies. Canadian MMA fighter Elias Theodorou is trying to change that. He uses cannabis for pain management for bilateral neuropathy in his upper extremities (chronic pain in his wrists, elbows, upper neck, and spine). “Doctor prescribed cannabis is the best medical option to manage my pain,” he told VICE. “Traditional, first-line medications like pain killers, opioids, and NSAIDs have all had detrimental side-effects to my body as both a patient and athlete.”
Theodorou, who has been sponsored by Pert Plus, Mattel, and Coors Light, explained, “This fight is not only about working with cannabis companies, but also the need to knock down the barriers and negative perception other companies may have with cannabis.”
Mendi, a CBD startup company, has “athlete ambassadors” who help promote their products, including soccer player and Women’s World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe, and her girlfriend, WNBA player Sue Bird. The athlete ambassadors receive Mendi products to promote on their social channels and attend Mendi events. The company was founded by Rapinoe’s twin sister, Rachael, who is also a former pro soccer player. Although CBD is banned in the WNBA, Bird uses it in her off-season. She told New York Magazine, “It’s great for recovery and it relaxes me. I usually take it at night so I can sleep, which helps with recovery, and have had amazing results.”
While the use of cannabis might seem diametrically opposed to what an athlete values—inaction versus action—calm, relaxation, and rest are integral to athletes’ overall success and well-being. But athletes don’t even limit use to off-hours in our modern times: In 2019, The University of Colorado Boulder released a study on over 600 runners with legalized cannabis that found 80 percent of cannabis users mixed workouts with cannabis use. Although cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug, Dr. Rosemary Mazanet, Chief Scientific Officer of Columbia Care, claimed to VICE it can help diminish performance anxiety. “You’re able to be more in the moment and have more fun, to be more limber, to be more flexible,” said Manazet.
Pulmonologist Vandana A. Patel stressed to VICE via email that smoking cannabis can negatively impact an athlete’s performance. “Inhaling cannabis can cause structural lung injuries, like building air pockets in the lung which can rupture under increased physical stress.” Because of this, many athletes, like Dokken, stick to edibles.
The owners of the Oregon-based dispensary Tokyo Starfish all previously worked in the snowboarding industry before they transitioned into opening a dispensary. Tokyo Starfish-sponsored professional snowboarder, Max Warbington explained that the dispensary focuses on the lifestyle aspect of snowboarding rather than the performance aspect.
Tokyo Starfish-sponsored snowboarder Nora Beck told VICE that she uses cannabis during snowboarding when she needs to relax. She explains, “It’s like you’re on hyperdrive and you just need to turn the volume down a little bit.”
“Tokyo Starfish is actually invested in snowboarding and they understand that I’m out there doing my job as a pro snowboarder and just the fact that I have the Tokyo sticker that’s like a total bonus for them,” Warbington said. As a pro snowboarder sponsored by Tokyo Starfish, Warbington sends the company videos and photos throughout the winter. He also wears their T-shirts and hoodies and markets them to snowboarding fans on his social media.
When asked whether he feels like there’s a stigma as an athlete sponsored by a cannabis company, he replied, “I think they’re probably always will be [a stigma] just the same as there’s a stigma with alcohol because it’s a substance that people abuse.”
In a phone interview with VICE, Warbington said he is particularly conscious of his image. “I definitely don’t want to push it [cannabis] on the youth and that’s why I always like to preach that.” He does not allow Tokyo Starfish to post images on their social media of him smoking pot, though Warbington sometimes posts a picture of a joint in his personal Instagram stories. He said, “I always second-guess it every time because of my influence.”
Brands like Tokyo Starfish and Wana are trying to combat negative associations with cannabis. They want the public to affiliate the recreational drug with an active lifestyle. Warbington said it’s really important to him that people know he and his Tokyo Starfish teammates do not personify the “lazy stoner” stereotype. Far from it. “We’re out here smoking weed,” he said. “We’re the first person up [on the slopes in the morning] and the last one to leave the mountain.”