Drop the sporting cannabis test for athletes

NEIL REID
Last updated 05:00 28/07/2013

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Stop testing Kiwi sports stars for cannabis.

That's the call from MPs and New Zealand's sports anti-doping organisation.

About 70 per cent of positive tests for banned substances handled by Drug Free Sport NZ are for cannabis or synthetic cannabis.

But chief executive Graeme Steel says the time and money it spends testing and punishing athletes for using cannabinoids could be better used tracking performance-enhancing drugs cheats.

Steel also says the organisation doesn't have the resources to tackle the social issue of cannabis use.

Parliament's government administration select committee reviewed Drug Free Sport NZ's performance and reported: "The organisation told us that it would prefer not to have to test for cannabinoids, but it seemed unlikely that cannabinoids would be removed from the World Anti-Doping Agency's [Wada] list of prohibited substances.

"Neither we nor the organisation encourage the use of cannabinoids, but we consider that its resources could be better used elsewhere."

Select committee member Labour MP Trevor Mallard, a former Minister of Sport and Recreation and a former member of Wada's executive committee, told Sunday News: "The problem . . . is that [cannabis] is on the banned list. Therefore when they [Drug Free Sport NZ] find it, they then have an obligation to move forward with the disciplinary cases. There is an enormous proportion of their resources wasted, in my opinion, because of that.

"I don't want to be in anyway seen as encouraging sportspeople to use cannabis, in fact I think it is wrong and is adverse to their performance. But Drug Free Sport has a limited budget and it is better to focus that budget on catching cheats and catching people who help cheats."

Mallard was adamant cannabis should not be on the list of banned drugs for which Drug Free Sport NZ tested. He knew of no sport where cannabis could be used as performance-enhancing.

"The idea of a banned list for sports drugs is either it enhances your performance or is a real danger to other people that get involved when you are involved in sport. We are after drugs that enhance performance or actively endanger other people."

Steel said he did not consider cannabis to be a performance-enhancing drug, and testing for cannabinoids, and then punishing users, was sucking up a sizeable amount of Drug Free Sport NZ's resources and time.

"We are spending money on things that conceivably could be better spent elsewhere."

The focus should be on tackling problems like those grabbing headlines overseas, of cutting-edge performance-enhancing drugs and sportspeople allegedly "being used effectively as guinea pigs" for those drugs, he said.

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Drug Free Sport NZ's resources should not be used to solve a social problem - cannabis use - rather than a specifically sports problem, Steel said.

"We don't believe we can be particularly effective in changing often long-term habits of many, many young people [who smoke cannabis], some of whom are sportspeople. We just really don't have the clout. Many other organisations have far more resources than us and have failed."

Wada recently moved to increase the threshold for the level of THC required to activate a positive test from 15 nanograms a millilitre to 150, making it more difficult to fail a test through second-hand exposure to cannabis smoke. But Wada still has cannabis and synthetic cannabis on its banned list.

There are three criteria that could lead to a substance being on the list: it is harmful to health, it enhances performance, or it is contrary to the spirit of sport. If two of those apply, it is banned.

Steel said: "We had argued that [if a substance is performance-enhancing, then banning it] should be mandatory. If it is not performance-enhancing, it is not cheating, it is none of our business."

He said, however, in no way was he or Drug Free Sport NZ condoning the use of cannabis or synthetic cannabis products.

The five-page government administration select committee report also sheds more light on the dangers New Zealand athletes face by taking multiple sports supplements.

Drug Free Sport NZ told the committee some supplements often inadvertently contained prohibited substances.

The committee said that is why it would be impossible for Drug Free Sport NZ to guarantee any sports supplement to be clear of prohibited substances.

"It therefore does not recommend their use by athletes. "Any athlete who uses supplements does so at their own risk," the report said.

OLYMPIAN BACKS CANNABIS CHANGE

Ross Rebagliati was stripped of his 1998 Winter Olympics snowboarding gold medal after failing a doping test for cannabis.

The Canadian said he was a victim of second-hand smoke and had the gold returned after an arbitration court ruled there was no clear provision for marijuana testing at the Nagano Olympics in Japan.

Cannabinoids were later added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list.

Rebagliati welcomes Wada's increasing of the threshold for the level of THC required to activate a positive test – but questions why sports authorities still test for cannabis at all.

Smoking marijuana had never enhanced his sporting performance, he said.

"It wasn't ... [that] if I used it I could ride my bike faster, lift heavier or jump higher," Rebagliati told News .

He said cannabis, which is legal in Canada for medicinal use, had allowed him to relax during a gruelling six day-a-week training regime during his professional snowboarding career.

"I don't know anybody who can just sit down at the end of a long day and not want to have a puff or a cold beer.

"For me it [cannabis] was that one thing that would allow me to be motivated, and continue to be motivated over a long period of time."

Rebagliati believed top-level sports competitors used cannabis. He predicted that would become more common following Wada's THC threshold increase.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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