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Cannabis and professional sport - what Willie Rioli's positive test could make us reconsider.

By @parslco on 24 Sep 2019.
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News today broke that AFL player Willie Rioli has tested positive to cannabis. This is the second allegation Rioli is dealing with after it was announced over a week ago that he tampered with an ASADA drug test.

According to the announcement, the sample in which cannabis was detected happened on September 5th, the day he was playing in an Elimination Final and before he was notified about the investigation of his alleged substitution. Cannabis is an in-competition prohibited substance under the Australian Football Anti-Doping Code.

Without any further information, it is impossible to tell why Rioli may have had cannabis in his system or even if his earlier substitution was connected to the fact that he thought he might test positive for cannabis.

However, even without the urine substitution, the newest announcement means that Rioli will likely be suspended at least partially for having consumed cannabis. According to WADA prohibited list cannabis meets all three criteria to be placed on the banned list.

Does cannabis really need to be a banned substance for athletes? For a substance to be on WADA’s banned list it needs to meet two of the three below criteria:

It has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance. It represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete. It violates the spirit of sport. According to WADA cannabis meets all three of these conditions. The full reading on their explanation read here, but it can be broken down as below:

The justification for claiming it is performance enhancing is that “[c]annabis can cause muscle relaxation and reduce pain during post-workout recovery” and “[i]t can also decrease anxiety and tension”. For a natural substance that is proven to have many positive effects, the fact that the above would be considered a negative is astounding. Especially when it is paired in the very next section with “studies show that marijuana use may cause a variety of health risks”.

The final point that it violates the spirit of the sport is based entirely on the fact that it is still illegal in most countries, which based on the current growth in legalisation is only going to be true for a limited amount of time.

While some will argue that Rioli knew the rules and of course cannabis use is still illegal in Australia (except under strict exceptions), with everything we are learning about the science of cannabis, events like this are a good time to question, “Is it time for change?”

This is an issue that America has been dealing with in professional sport for some time with little ground being made. At the Cannabis Dealmakers Summit in Dallas, Parsl’s CEO, Isaac Balbin met Ricky Williams, a former NFL player who retired from the sport in 2004 after testing positive to cannabis that he was using to cope with mental health and football related injuries.

ricky-wilson-isaac-balbin.png Dr. Isaac Balbin with Ricky Williams at this years Cannabis Dealmakers Summit

Dr Isaac Balbin met Ricky Williams at this years Cannabis Dealmakers Summit Despite the awareness this brought to the subject, many other players have been suspended and fined from playing in the NFL and a softening of the hardline stance is only just filtering through to the top level.

It’s time to revisit how we deal with testing for cannabis The news today is about more than just what will happen to the rest of Willie Rioli’s career.

It should make us rethink what we’re trying to achieve when we test people for cannabis. Cannabis is banned as a match day substance in the AFL but cannabis can be detected in the urine of even occasional users 3 days after consumption (and up to a month for heavy users).

Positive tests can be returned even if someone has used CBD oil to treat an injury.

And beyond sports, everyday people can test positive for cannabis and lose their drivers license long after the effects have worn off.

The simple answer is clear – consuming cannabis is against the law. But the more important question to ask, what are we achieving by keeping it that way?