High-performance? CBD-infused drinks for athletes coming as pot edibles are legalized

Regulations come into effect today allowing cannabis-containing edibles, extracts and creams to be produced and sold in Canada, opening the door to a wave of potential business opportunities targeted not just at the recreational user, but also athletes.

2nd phase of cannabis legalization creates wave of potential business opportunities

John Celenza and ex-NHL player Michael Cammalleri, co-founders and co-CEOs of BioSteel Sports Nutrition Inc., plan to launch a CBD-infused version of their pink hydration sports drink. (Laura MacNaughton/CBC)

Consumers eager to get their hands on cannabis-infused edibles, extracts and topical creams are one step closer today as regulations come into effect allowing cannabis-containing products to be produced and sold in Canada.

This second phase of legalization opens the door to a wave of potential business opportunities aimed not just at the recreational user, but also athletes. 

Toronto-based BioSteel Sports Nutrition Inc. wants a piece of the edibles and alternative-cannabis market, estimated to be worth $2.7 billion annually, with $529 million likely to be spent on cannabis-infused beverages alone. 

"The forecasted numbers and projections are massive. For us, that's great and that's the business side of it, but it was really a natural fit," said John Celenza, co-founder and co-chief executive of BioSteel.

BioSteel, a popular brand among high-performance and professional athletes, plans to infuse a version of their signature pink hydration drink with cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is a cannabinoid that can be derived from cannabis or hemp that Health Canada says, on its own, doesn't contain the THC component that gets you high.

"We're going to take out the amino acids and add CBD," said Celenza about the new version of their sport drink. 

BioSteel's CBD-infused product line will include drink mixes, protein powders and topical creams. (BioSteel )

BioSteel is partnering with a Canadian cannabis producer for its products and expertise, recently signing a deal to sell a 72 per cent stake of the company to Canopy Growth.

The partnership is a no-brainer to BioSteel co-founder and ex-NHL player Michael Cammalleri, who has long supported the idea of athletes using CBD as an alternative painkiller and has been using prescribed CBD himself for two years.

"CBD became something that NHL players and pro-athletes and a lot of people were turning to as a healthier alternative to the methods that they were previously using," said Cammalleri.

But just how safe and effective is CBD at helping with pain and anxiety?

McMaster University professor Stuart Phillips says there are plenty of anecdotal reports about the benefits of CBD, but he'd like to see more science backing that up.

"The research that's out there is completely in its infancy," said Phillips, who is the director of the McMaster Centre for Nutrition, Exercise and Health Research in Hamilton.

"We know probably a lot more about THC than we do about CBD, but we know very little about either compound."

Pro sports not keen on CBD 

The lack of acceptance among professional sports leagues regarding athletes taking CBD doesn't bode well for companies like BioSteel, either. 

Currently, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association all prohibit players from taking natural cannabinoids, including CBD, citing a risk of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) contamination in these products, which could lead to a positive doping test. 

In 2018, the U.S. Farm Bill legalized hemp containing less than 0.3 per cent THC. The maker of CBD-infused drink Defy was co-founded by ex-NFL player Terrell Davis. It launched in the U.S. in May. (@DEFY/Twitter)

"We take many steps to educate our players about the risks of contamination," said Mike Teevan, MLB's vice-president of communications.

The National Hockey League doesn't outright ban athletes from using CBD products, but rather urges "caution when using" to ensure consistency with applicable laws, proper labelling, and lack of contamination, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement to CBC News.

Canopy Growth admits that the hemp-derived CBD in BioSteel products would contain "10 parts per million THC," an amount they say would be so minimal it wouldn't be detected on a drug test. 

In the U.S., CBD products that claim to be THC-free are already widely available, despite the fact that the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) classifies CBD as a controlled illegal substance.

Signs stance on CBD changing

In 2018 the U.S. Farm Bill legalized hemp that contains less than 0.3 per cent THC, which explains why many hemp-derived CBD products are available south of the border. 

There are more signs that the stance on CBD is changing. 

The NFL and the NFL Players Association have partnered to conduct their own research on whether CBD is an effective alternative for managing pain.

In 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from its prohibited list, but in a statement a WADA spokesperson wrote that "while in theory athletes are permitted to take CBD as they wish, there are no guarantees that the product they are using does not contain trace amounts of THC." 

The statement ended by saying, "WADA advises that athletes use extreme caution when using CBD products."

Targeting consumers

"Clearly we need to do some good research, I think, before I would make any recommendation, particularly to professional athletes," cautions McMaster professor Phillips about the use of CBD.

Still, BioSteel's CEO says their new line of CBD products isn't just for professional athletes, but for the active consumer as well. 

"That's how BioSteel started, right? It was a drink for pro athletes, and as it got more known, everyday people started to use it. So really it's for people that are going through aches and pains or anxieties in their everyday life," said Celenza. 

BioSteel says they're ready to go with the products, but the earliest their CBD-infused beverages will be available to consumers would be in March, 2020.

Across Canada, other cannabis edibles, extracts and topicals cannot actually be legally sold in stores or online until mid-December at the earliest.

Companies are required to give Health Canada 60 days notice of their intent to sell a new product, which can be done starting today.


Laura MacNaughton is a field producer in the business unit of CBC News. She joined CBC in 2007 and has produced a range of national television, radio and online stories. Prior to joining CBC, she spent several years producing morning talk radio programs at CJBK in London, Ont.


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