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by Micha on 01/10/2018 | Consumption

Sporting thresholds – cannabis and drug tests in competitive sports

Cannabis and Sport Not just professional basketball players in the US consume cannabis. The international doping agency WADA only bans cannabis during, but not between, competitions – and CBD has been removed from the prohibited list.


Whether cannabis can be used as doping is hotly disputed. Despite this, cannabis is one of the many recorded doping substances in the world of sport. Like most other illegal drugs, cannabis is one of the substances that are prohibited in competition. Alongside this category, there are other substances that are prohibited at all times, and one category that includes those substances that are prohibited in particular sports.

No THC threshold

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has reviewed cannabis several times in the last few years, and decided back in 2013 to change the threshold for THC decomposition products. Whereas before 2013 the so-called THC-COOH value was still 15 ng per ml of blood, for the last five years, sportswomen have been able to have a threshold value of 150 ng per ml of blood without fear of incurring any sanctions from WADA or their national Anti-Doping Agency.

White and green banner of the World Anti-Doping Agency promoting doping-free sport.

WADA has also done away entirely with the measurement and determination of the active THC threshold, as cannabis is not a so-called threshold substance, and because you can use THC-COOH to show whether someone took part in a competition under the influence of cannabis.

The adjustment to the threshold did not mean that athletes have been allowed since 2013 to take part in a competition while high, but at 150 ng per ml of THC-COOH the threshold more or less reflects reality. Even regular cannabis users can therefore take part in competitions provided they do not consume any for a day or two beforehand.

THC-COOH stands for THC carboxylic acid. It is a decomposition product of the active cannabis ingredient THC, and can indicate consumption days or weeks previously. However, more than a few experts have doubts about how reliable the carboxylic acid level is, in terms of decomposition times and frequency of consumption. Most countries have now done away entirely with this measurement in traffic drug inspections.

Photo taken in a laboratory, showing a microscope and two hands in blue plastic gloves holding a tuft of hair in a transparent container.

“So far it has been assumed that demonstrating the presence of specific decomposition products from the active cannabis ingredient THC in the hair was certain proof of consumption. Researchers at the Institute of Legal Medicine at Freiburg University Hospital, led by the toxicologist Prof. Volker Auwärter, have shown in experimental studies that this conclusion is not conclusive,” states the journal Nature in its “Scientific Reports“ in October 2015. Only the active THC value should be used to determine whether someone is incapacitated to drive, says the forensic medical expert from Freiburg in his study.

In any case, the consumption of cannabis is not sanctioned between competitions, so the WADA needs to consider, in light of current research results, why it does not simply define a THC threshold. The answer would likely be along the lines of not wanting to give any misleading signals.

What about CBD?

Following the increase in the THC-COOH value, last year WADA  removed cannabidiol (CBD) from the list of banned substances in competitions. All other cannabinoids, whether natural or artificial, are banned but not listed individually by name.

As part of the first-time inclusion of synthetic cannabinoids, WADA also listed “cannabimimetica” generally, in order to be prepared against the constantly changing new psychoactive substances (NPS, also known colloquially as “legal highs”).

In the meantime, sportswomen could even get an exemption from the WADA for the medical use of cannabis – provided the use is legal in the athlete’s country of origin. So far, no such case has been known.

Win a gold medal and lose your driving licence

Photo of a yellow road-sign showing ‘Idiot Test’ in the top half and ‘Driving Licence’ in the bottom half. The words ‘Driving Licence’ are crossed out in red.

If you add the tolerance threshold of 10%, WADA is actually only sanctioning its female athletes from 180 ng per ml for competing while under the influence of cannabis. So anyone with 160 ng THC-COOH in their blood can run an Olympic race, but in Germany under traffic laws, they are treated as long-term stoners who require therapy.

Once caught in the mill of administrative law, even 75 ng THC-COOH are deemed too much to drive a car. According to an expert report from the University of Munich that is regularly quoted in court, anything over this value indicates regular consumption, and at 150 ng, there is dependency behaviour. Both generally lead to a long-term confiscation of your driving licence and having to undergo a medico-psychological report, known as the “idiot test” (MPU).

Someone who wins a gold medal for Germany could lose their driving licence on the way home a few days later, under a DUI charge for being a cannabis addict. They could be asked to take the MPU – based on the same value with which they passed the doping test directly after the competition.

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