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Olympians’ Marijuana Ban Is For Competition Only

Marijuana use has been a dicey subject for Olympic athletes in the past. Back in 2009, Michael Phelps acknowledged a photo of him using a bong was real, and he was suspended from competition for three months. On top of that, he lost a lucrative sponsorship from Kellogg’s. Now, eight years after Phelps won big with eight gold medals in Beijing, he, along thousands more athletes, will head to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the Summer Olympics. Over the intervening years, marijuana has been decriminalized in jurisdictions around the world. But what about for Olympians? Are Olympic athletes allowed to smoke weed?

Since the 2014 Winter Olympics, athletes have not needed to worry about testing unless they are extreme users. Technically cannabis is included on the list of banned substances in competition, so, no, athletes cannot use it during the games. But before or after is just fine. In May 2013 the World Anti-Doping Agency raised the level of allowed marijuana in an athlete’s system 10 times the prior amount to 150 nanograms per milliliter. That makes it harder for someone who uses it outside of competitions like the Olympics to test positive.

Before the rule change, there was always the possibility that an athlete would test positive for the drug, even when they had only been using it recreationally before the competitive event. Four athletes tested positive for THC in 2012 when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency conducted tests before the London games. That was a very small percentage of athletes, but it led to one American wrestler being kept from the team, and another American judoka being sent home.

Ben Nichols, a spokesperson for the World Anti-Doping Agency, told USA Today the thought behind the changes:

Our information suggests that many cases do not involve game or event-day consumption. The new threshold level is an attempt to ensure that in-competition use is detected and not use during the days and weeks before competition.

The changes should prevent that from happening unless they’re actively using it during the competition.

Marijuana first became an issue at Olympic events in 1998. Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive for the drug after winning the gold medal, which was temporarily suspended. But then officials realized it wasn’t on the banned substances list. The following year, the World Anti-Doping Agency was formed and marijuana was officially banned during competition.

The exact reason for the ban is debatable. Some experts have pointed out that certain sports, like bobsledding, would be dangerous under the influence of pot. Others said the drug was originally banned because it violated the “spirit of sport.” USA Today reported that there are three reasons drugs are banned by the agency: “Performance enhancement, danger to an athlete’s health, and violation of the spirit of sport.”

Phelps is probably not using marijuana in the run-up to the games — he’s the first American male swimmer to qualify for the Olympics five times. Other athletes, though, might be happy about the change. Some argue it helps them train or serves as a healthier pain killer than prescription drugs. They’ll want to be careful in Rio, though, because marijuana is still illegal in Brazil — even though the Supreme Court considered broad decriminalization last year.

Marijuana use has been a dicey subject for Olympic athletes in the past. Back in 2009, Michael Phelps acknowledged a photo of him using a bong was real, and he was suspended from competition for three months. On top of that, he lost a lucrative…

Can Olympic Athletes Smoke Marijuana? The Answer Is More Complicated Than You Think

Olympic athletes and marijuana have a contentious history. A few months after winning a record-breaking eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, swimmer Michael Phelps was caught on camera smoking marijuana, an infamous incident that barred him from competition for three months and lost him a major endorsement deal with Kellogg’s.

Yet, with medical and recreational marijuana laws loosening nationwide and a cannabidiol (commonly known as CBD) craze taking the country by storm, the rules surrounding marijuana use among Olympic athletes have changed as well. Since 2013, athletes have been allowed to compete with up to 150 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) of marijuana in their systems — a 10-fold increase from the prior threshold of 15 ng/ml.

For the uninitiated cannabis user, what does this scientific jargon really mean in practice? Marijuana usually stays in a casual user’s system for a few weeks, and in a chronic user’s for over a month (though this varies person to person), but with some time between use and competition, the level of marijuana may be too insignificant to trigger a positive Olympic drug test. To put this in perspective, most workplaces with drug testing policies have much stricter thresholds for marijuana use — they won’t bat an eye if you have between 15 and 50 ng/ml of marijuana in your system, but you’d be in big trouble with 150 ng/ml. For those wondering about cannabidiol, Olympic athletes have had the full green light to use CBD products, such as CBD lotions, serums and salves, since 2019.

These semi-lenient rules surrounding marijuana use at the Olympics may seem confusing because, technically, marijuana is included on a list of substances prohibited in competition by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the international organization that coordinates and regulates anti-doping efforts across international sports. This means that while athletes may have some marijuana in their system during competition and while they can indulge before or after the Olympic Games, they absolutely cannot smoke marijuana during the games. This is an especially salient rule for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where marijuana use is punishable with up to five years in prison.

If you’re in pursuit of a travel destination where the high is at the heart of the adventure, there are many places around the world that are now advertising cannabis tourism.

A growing number of US states and countries have legalized medical and recreational marijuana. Olympic drug policies are slowly catching up.