The expulsion of an American judo player from the London 2012 Olympic Games after he tested positive for marijuana prompted scientists to question the sense behind the drug's inclusion on the World Anti Doping Agency's (WADA) banned list.
Few experts think marijuana, or cannabis, can do much to enhance the kind of speed, strength, power or precision that Olympic athletes strive for. And many wonder whether the expensive time and effort of sporting drug testers might be better spent catching serious cheats who top up their blood with EPO or pop anabolic steroids to boost testosterone levels and muscle growth.
"There's no evidence cannabis is ever performance enhancing in sport, and since its use is legal in a number of countries, there's no reason for it to be banned by WADA," said David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London.
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"I can't think of any sport in which it would be an advantage. And it seems ludicrous that someone could quite legally smoke cannabis in Amsterdam in the morning and then come over to London in the afternoon and be banned from competing."
The heart of the problem is where to draw the line between performance enhancing drugs - which many experts agree should be prohibited in sports because they make the contest unfair - and recreational drugs, which have little bearing on performance but could give sport a bad image.
Scientific or political?
Since marijuana is a forbidden drug on WADA's current list, athletes face a two-year ban if it is found in their system while they are in competition.
But the anti-doping body does not sanction athletes who test positive for marijuana outside of competition times, while they are in training camps or during rest periods.
Scientists say this smacks of double standards and suggests WADA bans cannabis for political rather than scientific reasons.
"The problem is the elite athletes should be seen as role models for young kids, and so they ban cannabis because they don't want to have the image of gold medalists smoking joints," said one British-based sports scientist who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
A photo of the American swimming champion Michael Phelps smoking marijuana through a glass pipe "bong" in 2009 sparked criticism from the US Olympic Committee.
In a statement released shortly after the picture was published by a British tabloid newspaper, Phelps admitted to smoking pot and apologised for what he described as "bad judgement". But he faced no sporting sanction for his behaviour because it was not "in competition".
Experts say that row, as well as the ruling on American judoka Nick Delpopolo - who said he inadvertently ate the drug in a marijuana brownie - is far more to do with the image of sport than any form of cheating.
"It's hard to imagine how smoking a joint or eating marijuana brownies is going to help somebody in judo," said Michael Joyner, a member of the Physiological Society and a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in the United States.
"My advice to WADA is that they should focus on drugs that are clearly performance enhancing in the sports where they are clearly performance enhancing."
Some national sporting bodies are also kicking back against WADA's stance.
Australia's Coalition of Major Professional and Participation Sports called in May for marijuana to be removed from the list saying it was wrong to group it with performance enhancing drugs like human growth hormone and steroids.
Substances on WADA's banned list should meet two of the following criteria: they are proven to be performance enhancing, they are dangerous to the health of athletes, or they are contrary to the spirit of sport.
While there are few signs that marijuana can enhance sporting performance, there is evidence to suggest it could have a negative impact.
Studies have shown that THC - the ingredient in cannabis that induces the "high" - increases blood pressure and heart rate while also decreasing cardiac stroke volume, leading to diminished peak performance.
It can also slow reaction times, cause problems with coordination, reduce hand-eye coordination, and interfere with visual perception.
Anti-doping authorities were not keen to discuss the issue. Officials at UK Anti-Doping declined to comment, and an email sent to WADA's media relations office asking for a statement on why cannabis is banned got no response.
(Reuters Health, August 2012)
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