Does cannabis improve athletic performance? What pro athletes have to say on the question determining marijuana’s place in sports

Sha’Carri Richardson celebrates in the Women’s 100 Meter semifinal on day 2 of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 19, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

There’s a stigma surrounding cannabis use in athletics. Many organizations claim that cannabis enhances athletic performance, leading to penalties and bans when players test positive for it — whether it be in the National Football League (NFL), the Olympics, or any other professional sports organization.

Cannabis — with the exception of cannabidiol (CBD) — are on the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA)’s list of banned substances. The WADA argues that cannabis can alter response times, raise the risk for injury, impact decision-making, and enhance performance in certain sports.

However, many athletes argue that cannabis does not enhance their performance. Many athletes across all sports turn to marijuana, whether in the form of THC, CBD, or another form, for relaxing, pain relief, and more when off the field, but they don’t see their athletic skills boosted because of cannabis.

There’s no clear scientific evidence on whether or not cannabis can affect athletic performance, and research into the subject is ongoing. In February, the NFL announced that they’re donating $1 million to research cannabis and CBD and the impact on pain management.

Many athletes and scientists alike advocate for more research, for cannabis to be removed from banned substance lists, and remove other fines and penalties when athletes test positive for it.

Here’s what some athletes across the sports industry have had to say about cannabis.

1. Avery Collins, Professional Ultramarathoner and Former NHL Player

“If you can find the right level, [marijuana] takes the stress out of running,” Collins told The Wall Street Journal. “And it’s a postrace, post-run remedy.”

Collins, who played four seasons with the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers and founded the Hemp Heals Foundation, a nonprofit promoting hemp as an alternative healing treatment, advocates for marijuana as a relaxer.

2. Matt Barnes, NBA Player

“All of my best games, I was medicated [with marijuana],” Barnes, who played 14 years in the NBA, told Bleacher Report. “It wasn’t every single game but, in 15 years, it was a lot.”

Barnes has slammed the industry’s perception of marijuana as “a ‘black athlete’ stereotype drug.”

“You’re not testing for alcohol. You’re not testing for, I mean, these pills that are destroying our insides that our trainers are giving us. You know what I mean? You’re testing for weed because you know we like to do it,” he told Bleacher Report.

3. Nick Diaz, UFC Fighter

In 2015, Diaz was suspended from fighting for five years after testing positive for marijuana. 

In 2016, he opened up about cannabis use with High Times, saying it was a part of his daily training and relaxation routine.

“If I’m at home and I’m training — doing my same things every day — then I’m definitely going to want to use cannabis. It’s gonna help. I’m trying to stay focused on what I’m doing,” Diaz told High Times.

He continued, saying he doesn’t “want a whole lot going on” and that cannabis helps him relax and unplug.

“If I’m going to train all day, when I get done, I’m gonna want to smoke. If I have to go and train all day, before I go, I’m gonna want to smoke. If I wake up in the morning and feel beat to s**t, and it’s going to take me forever to wake up, I smoke some weed and I wake right up. Then I have breakfast and I go do a workout,” he added.

4. Sha’Carri Richardson, Olympic Qualifying Runner

In Summer 2021, track Olympic qualifier Richardson was given a one-month suspension after testing positive for marijuana. She said in an interview with Today that she used marijuana after her the death of her mother.

“People don’t understand what it’s like to have to … go in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain. Who am I to tell you how to cope when you’re dealing with the pain or you’re dealing with a struggle that you haven’t experienced before or that you thought you never would have to deal with?” she told Today.

She added that her mother’s death was “triggering,” and she went into “a state of emotional panic” after learning about it.

In February 2022, after Russian Olympic Ice Skater Kamila Valieva, 15, tested positive for a drug that experts say can enhance blood flow to people’s hearts, Richardson tweeted, “Btw THC definitely is not a performance enhance[r]!!!!”

5. Joanna Zeiger, Professional Triathlete, Olympian, and Ironman Winner

“A terrible bike accident left me with severe chronic pain, and I also have a genetic condition that also causes pain. Traditional medications have not been enough to maintain an adequate quality of life, so I delved into cannabis use as a means of pain control, spasm control, and to aid with sleep,” Zeiger told Shoutout Colorado

Zeiger placed 4th in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, won the 2009 Ironman 70.3 World Champion, and holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Zeiger has since launched her own research organization, Canna Research Group, delving into the medical uses of cannabis for athletes.

Kassidy Vavra