British Columbia·GREENLIT

Is pot 'performance-enhancing'? Canadian and international anti-doping bodies disagree

Legalization or decriminalization of cannabis is taking place in many parts of the world. Despite this, international athletes who test positive for the drug can face penalties. Is that likely to change?

'The clothing you wear and the skis and everything you do ... is performance enhancing'

At left, marijuana for sale at a dispensary. At right, a test kit for human urine doping testing. The World Anti-Doping Agency says marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug but Canada's anti-doping agency disagrees. (Julie Gordon/Reuters; Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

The world's top agency fighting doping in sport considers cannabis to be a performance-enhancing drug — but it's Canadian affiliate, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports (CCES), does not agree.

On Tuesday, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will hold its first global athlete's forum in Calgary to discuss developments in anti-doping.

Discussions around a charter to protect clean athletes, doping rules and the list of banned substances will be prominent, especially with Canada set to legalize recreational cannabis.

"The CCES, to be completely frank, has always argued that marijuana should not be on the list," the organization's president, Paul Melia, said.

"We don't believe there is sufficient scientific evidence supporting its performance-enhancing benefits."

Legalization or decriminalization of cannabis is taking place in many parts of the world. Despite this, international athletes who test positive for the drug can face penalties.

However, pot's status as a banned substance will be the subject of discussion between the Canadian and world anti-doping bodies.

Athletes disagree

Weed became a banned substance in 1998, in the wake of a famous Canadian sports scandal: the winning, stripping, and then returning of snowboarder Ross Rebegliati's gold medal earned in the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Rebagliati won the first-ever snowboarding event but was disqualified for having cannabis in his system.

He was reinstated after an official appeal from Canada. His explanation for the positive test was he had been to parties where people around him were smoking pot.

Rebagliati is now in the cannabis business. He says the substance shouldn't be banned even though it is "absolutely" performance enhancing.

"The word 'performance enhancing' is stigmatized," Rebagliati said. "The clothing you wear and the skis and everything you do, including brushing your teeth, is performance enhancing."

These days, Ross Rebagliati is a marijuana entrepreneur. (Greg Hobbs/CBC)

But not all Canadian athletes think cannabis should be delisted.

"They need to create a safe playing field for all athletes," said sprinter Robert Esmie, who won a gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics.

"They are entitled to smoke it, drink it, enjoy it, but when it's time for drug testing? The rules are the rules.

"That's why I can't go to certain parties when I compete."

Change coming?

So what makes a drug "performance enhancing?"

According to WADA, it must meet two of the following three criteria: it must have the potential to enhance sport performance; represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete; or violates the spirit of sport.

Robert Esmie, left, was a member of the gold medal-winning Canadian men's 4X100 metre relay team in 1996 along with Bruny Surin, Donovan Bailey and Glenroy Gilbert. (AP Photo/Denis Paquin)

Depending on your perspective, you might think applying those criteria to weed is a little rich.

Melia was not present for discussions, but said he believes the main reasons weed is thought to be performance-enhancing are that it was thought to remove fear in athletes — which might help a high diver or a downhill skier, for instance — and that it could lead to increased creativity.

Jack Taunton, who also served as chief medical officer of the 2010 Winter Olympics, says he will be involved in discussions to take take place between the CCES and WADA about marijuana's status as a banned substance.

But as for change coming soon? Don't hold your breath, Melia says.

"You have to remember the world anti-doping code, and the list that it is a part of it, is a consensus of some 200 countries and 70 international sport-governing bodies," Melia said.

"I don't anticipate it's going to be taken off the list in the near future."

Listen to the full story:

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

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