Ross Rebagliati was a Canadian snowboarder who won Olympic gold in the sport’s first ever appearance in Nagano, Japan in 1998. Maybe you’ve heard his story.
Rebagliati was stripped of his medal when trace amounts of cannabis were found in his drug test, only days after he topped the podium. He was just barely over the ridiculously small threshold of 15 nanograms per milliliter. The positive test was allegedly due to second-hand smoke Rebagliati inhaled at a party prior to the event.
Rebagliati made an appearance on The Tonight Show immediately after the Olympics to share his side of the story to a largely sympathetic Jay Leno. Even Dick Pound, at that time the vice president of the International Olympics Committee (IOC), said he didn’t think the incident was a doping issue. Cannabis wasn’t even on the IOC’s banned substances list in 1998, but was illegal in Japan, so Rebagliati was sent to a Japanese jail cell after his positive test. Thanks to an immediate appeal from the Canadian Olympic Association, he was released and had his gold-medal finish reinstated.
Over two decades later, an important decision has been made regarding cannabis in Canadian collegiate level sport—one with reasons remarkably similar to the scandal in Japan.
The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) announced on August 20, 2020 that cannabis will not be analyzed in drug tests at Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) and U SPORTS events. While the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) still has cannabis on its prohibited list of substances for in-competition use, the CCES will ignore any positive cannabis test a student-athlete may receive.
“In Canada, we have been on record as saying we don’t agree with cannabis being on the prohibited list,” Jeremy Luke, the senior director of sport integrity at the CCES, said in a phone interview. “We don’t think there is sufficient evidence to suggest it’s performance-enhancing and used in that way.”
Luke said the change was made because of the legalization of cannabis in Canada in 2018.
“We decided at that point in time, in conjunction with U SPORTS and CCAA, to take the policy decision to not analyze for it any longer,” Luke said. “That’s an option we’re allowed to do by WADA.”
The change only applies to student-athletes participating in events under U SPORTS and the CCAA, meaning someone competing in an international or national competition, or who is included in their National Athlete Pool, can still be tested for cannabis and face consequences of a positive test result.
It’s telling that 22 years after Ross Rebagliati brought cannabis to the forefront of sport, there’s still a cloud of negativity over the substance.
Drew Murray was a member of the VIU Mariners women’s soccer team from 2015 to 2019 and was co-captain in her final year. She remembers the stigma around cannabis on her team and from agencies like WADA.
“The idea of mixing marijuana and physical activity was a foreign concept to me for a long time because of the harsh rules in the past set by the [World Anti-Doping Agency],” Murray said in a text message. “During off-season I don’t think anyone would bat an eye at someone using marijuana. However, once preseason started up and we knew drug testing could be right around the corner, everyone tensed up a bit. To a certain extent, I believe it created a divide on the team. Players [were] gossiping about who might have been smoking weed, people were checking in on each other to make sure they were ‘clean.’”
Even though the threshold for acceptable levels of cannabis in a person’s body was raised from 15 to 150 nanograms per milliliter in 2011, student-athletes may not always know what the risks associated with exposure to the drug might be from an anti-doping perspective. Like the situation with Ross Rebagliati in 1998, Murray was worried about testing positive even though she wasn’t using cannabis.
“At some points I was even scared to be around my partner while he was using marijuana because I was concerned the second-hand smoke would show up if I were potentially tested,” Murray said.
Inadvertent positive tests are a large reason why the CCES saw the need to change their policy on cannabis testing.
“It can remain in one’s system for a really long time—up to 20 or 30 days,” Luke said. “And as a result, what we’ve seen is athletes who do test positive for the substance indicate that they didn’t use it in conjunction with the competition; they used it before—days before—when it otherwise would have been allowed.”
Spencer Rhodes is a student-athlete who will be transferring to VIU in the spring to finish off the last semester of his degree. He was born in Port Alberni but played golf in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the United States, first at Alcorn State in Mississippi, then Concordia University in Portland, Oregon.
Rhodes also worries about athletes receiving positive tests without realizing the consequences—especially in a country like the US where cannabis is still illegal federally and, depending on the state, where the stigma is culturally ingrained.
“It seems like you could make a very simple mistake and have your athletic career destroyed for a whole year or more,” Rhodes said.
In Oregon, where cannabis is legal, it was easy for Rhodes and his fellow athletes to see the potential benefits—like helping athletes relax or easing their muscle pain.
“Our athletic trainers, they would say that CBD has a lot of potential benefits but it’s simply too risky because if there’s any trace of THC within those CBD gummies, pills, whatever you’re taking, you’re going to be breaching the NCAA laws,” Rhodes said. “And if you’re found, you’re going to get suspended.”
Rhodes is encouraged by what the CCES has done in Canada and hopes the NCAA will eventually follow suit.
“Obviously, it’s going to take the United States to legalize it as a country but I definitely think, from what I know of it, the benefits for athletes are definitely enough to make it [legal] for athletes to do.”
Louis Matter, professor and chair for the new Kinesiology Department at VIU, agrees that cannabis—specifically CBD—can have positive effects for pain management in athletes and could be a possible alternative to addictive drugs like opioids. However, more research is needed.
“As long as cannabis is a [Schedule] One drug in the States, I don’t think a huge amount of research is going to be happening because the US is a major centre for all kinds of research,” Matter said. “But here in Canada, there are some very high-end research facilities across the country at major universities and I don’t doubt that work has started and will continue to grow.”
VIU’s Interim Athletics Director Danielle Hyde thinks the landscape of cannabis is changing in Canada, but student-athletes must still be careful navigating it.
“It’s a tricky one because I think, in sport, we were encouraging discretion and judgment about use. With the new rules … I think we still encourage that discretion and judgment, knowing that cannabis is still prohibited on anti-doping codes across the world, really.”
As a message to student-athletes who may have questions about the new policy change, Hyde recommended a long look at the CCES website and that student-athletes learn how it affects them. She also admitted that she—along with many others—will have to think differently about the way cannabis is dealt with in the sporting community.
“It was pretty cut-and-dry when it was not a legal substance in Canada,” Hyde said. “It was just like, ‘No, you don’t do this, it’s prohibited.’ Now, there’s more choice around it … so, does the old stigma follow it, or are there new thoughts that we have to start considering?”
Murray is excited to hear of the CCES’s policy change. Even though she’s graduated from VIU, she’s happy others can enjoy the positive shift in perspective.
“I feel optimistic that we are finally moving in the right direction,” she said. “The stigma surrounding marijuana is finally starting to fade … but those stigmas aren’t going to fade overnight.”
It’s been over 20 years since Ross Rebagliati had his gold medal stripped for a positive cannabis test. He’s recently launched a new cannabis lifestyle brand and teamed up with a cannabis health care company based in Calgary.
So, while Murray’s concerns are true that the stigma won’t disappear tomorrow, attitudes and regulations are changing around cannabis use in Canadian sport.
For student-athletes looking for clarity, here is the page detailing the CCES’s policy change.