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cbd for athletes

Professional athletes have utilized cannabis for decades as a recovery and endurance tool. The fact that marijuana has been illegal in America has kept the general public from hearing about it. Over the last few years, the accelerated cannabis reform across the country has inspired a few mainstream athletes to go public with their use. Still, many have remained quiet, fearing punishment from their leagues.

Nick Diaz & the UFC

The true pioneers of championing cannabis in sports were brothers Nick and Nate Diaz, fighters on the roster of the UFC. Nick had been outspoken since the early 2000s about the therapeutic effects of cannabis as he won titles and engaged in human chess matches against the most dangerous men on the planet.  His advocacy was compelling because he was the opposite of the stoner stereotype. 

His training was the stuff of legend. Diaz wasn’t only a UFC fighter, but a triathlete as well and would often compete in races as part of his fight preparation. Nick possessed the best cardio in mixed martial arts (MMA) and brought a level of technical striking shaped by years paying his dues in legendary California boxing gyms. He capped his arsenal off with a Cesar Gracie black belt in Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu, something that few Jiu-Jitsu practitioners could claim. No one wanted to find themselves in a grappling match with Nick. 

His capacity for mastery of so many disciplines often left his opponents at a loss trying to find a weakness. Anti-pot believers had a hard time understanding how Nick Diaz could have accomplished so much while puffing on joints. The truth was that runners, cyclists, footballers, swimmers, basketball players, and even Bruce Lee had long used cannabis to endure grueling workouts. Diaz was just honest about it. He argued the herb not only improved recovery but more importantly helped with the mental endurance necessary to study his craft–day after day, year after year. 

The World Anti-Doping Agency

The UFC and state athletic commissions punished Nick at different times in his career for testing positive for marijuana. After failing a screening for cannabis before his 2012 match-up with Carlos Condit, the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) suspended him for a year and fined him 30% of his purse. As details came out, it was questionable whether Nick had even failed because the lab had only discovered trace amounts right at the lowest detectable levels.  

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) took notice and decided to amend their cannabis policy in May of 2013 to allow 150 ng/ml. The new threshold was high enough that an athlete could use cannabis just days before testing and be ok. It was silly for athletic commissions to be punishing athletes more for smoking pot than for taking steroids that literally made them faster, stronger, and more dangerous. The UFC and NSAC agreed to follow the standards set by WADA and hoped the new guidelines would eliminate further arbitrary rulings coming at huge financial costs to the athlete. 

The Nevada State Athletic Commission

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the NSAC abusing their power. After his final fight with Anderson Silva in 2015, the commission determined that both athletes had violated the banned substances policy. They punished Diaz more heavily for accusations of testing positive for marijuana than his opponent Silva who tested positive for steroids. 

The NSAC attempted to fine Diaz hundreds of thousands of dollars and ban him from the sport for five years, effectively ending his career. The excessive level of punishment to one of the sports biggest names caught the media’s attention. His steroid popping adversary had only received a year suspension. The commission argued Nick was a repeat offender, but he had actually passed the two USADA blood tests, considered the gold standard of anti-doping. The urine sample that allegedly failed was known to be less accurate than blood and analyzed at a lab known for suspicious results. 

Media criticism continued, with stars from all over the world, including Cher giving support to Nick. A petition was signed to overturn their decision by over 100,000 people. The biggest issue was their intent to impose more severe fines for cannabis than for steroids. The danger of steroids in athletic competition was well-documented, but no one could provide any proof that marijuana provided an unfair physical edge to an athlete. The NSAC quietly reduced their punishment, but wouldn’t go as far as reversing his suspension. Due to the saga, a microscope was now on regulations of sports leagues and commissions concerning marijuana. 

Nate Diaz Introduces CBD to Professional Sports

The Diaz name remained in the headlines during his suspension. Shortly after the sentence, younger brother Nate stepped in on just a couple of weeks notice to stop the run of MMA’s most notorious athlete, Conor McGregor. A pinpoint jab-cross combination from Diaz stunned McGregor enough to make him dive for the ground where Nate choked him into submission moments later. The finish made the already-popular brother a superstar overnight. 

A year later he and McGregor rematched. After the fight, a battle-tested Diaz sat behind a podium microphone taking drags from a vapor pen as he fielded questions about the controversial decision. A reporter, as if he was afraid to hear the answer, asked Nate just what was in the pen he was vaping.

“CBD,” he responded, “It helps with healing processes and inflammation. You want to get these for before and after the fights and training–it will make your life a better place.” 

The answer put CBD in the headlines of sports blogs everywhere, and the long-overlooked cannabinoid officially transitioned into a fitness craze still growing today.  Competitors from every sport went looking for the highest-quality CBD they could find, and the public did too as glowing endorsements came in from their idols. The Diaz brothers had absorbed the brunt of the initial skepticism around THC and CBD in sports. Now the focus became excitement about their potential. 

Because CBD was extracted from hemp oil, it could be purchased in stores and didn’t get you high. Athletes praised CBD’s ability to boost their training. Stars like the UFC’s Sean O’Malley accepted CBD company sponsorship and admirably praised cannabis and hemp oils for their roles in his ability to maintain his rigorous training regimen.

CBD Enhances Rest and Recovery

CBD seemed to reduce soreness after practices. Bumps and bruises didn’t last as long, and perhaps most importantly, many noticed sleep improved–all without any real side effects or hangover. Poor sleep is a problem many Americans face and is amplified for athletes struggling with restricted diets, painful injuries, and pressure to win consistently. It’s a counterproductive cycle because being tired all of the time increases chances of injury and decreases focus. 

Professional cyclist Andrew Talansky: “I took it for a couple of weeks. There was a noticeable difference immediately, and it wasn’t just that my hip was feeling better. I was less anxious, and I was sleeping better.”

Talansky has used CBD oil produced by 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis. Floyd says he makes his products for “your 40-year-old endurance athlete who wants to feel good when he wakes up in the morning.”

Landis himself began taking CBD to manage pain from a 2006 hip replacement after relying on WADA-approved opioid-based painkillers for years. He reflected, “If you can stop taking other pain medications if you have a natural solution, that’s probably the better option.”

Soldiers in Israel Recieve CBD on the Battlefield

Dr. Allan Frankel supports this notion: “CBD, as it has been patented for neuro-protection, we know it helps healing concussions and so many other disorders, why in the world would we not give CBD to our professional athletes? [If] you’re a soldier in Israel and you have a head injury in the battlefield, you get CBD on the battlefield.”

Landis’s story is very similar to many NFL players. As detailed in Forbes Magazine in February, opioids are a go-to for NFL doctors. Players post-injury or surgery typically need something to deal with the pain. That’s usually where dependency starts. In my piece “Rejected Medical Marijuana Super Bowl Ad Raises The Question, Who is Running The Show,” I took a close look at the ties the NFL maintains with Big Pharma. Rest assured drug companies have not tried to dissuade the NFL from getting players hooked on opioids. 

WADA decided to remove CBD from their banned substances list in 2018, but the  NFL continues to prohibit cannabis and hemp-derived CBD. NFL doctors prescribe narcotic pain pills known to kill 70,000 people a year, more than 130 per day. What they aren’t doing is anything to deal with head trauma from the continuous collisions that fill an American football game. Beyond ironic, the U.S. government has a patent on CBD for this very reason.

Patent US6630507B1

In 1998, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a groundbreaking report on the neuroprotective properties of CBD and THC. The study, authored by A. Hampson, M. Grimaldi, D. Wink and Nobel laureate J. Axelrod of the National Institutes of Mental Health would form the basis of the U.S. government-held Patent US6630507B1 “Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants.”

“Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties,” begins the 2003 patent submitted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The document goes on to state: “Cannabidiol (CBD) is useful in the treatment [of a] wide variety of oxidation associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory, and autoimmune diseases. The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and HIV dementia. Nonpsychoactive cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol, are particularly advantageous to use because they avoid toxicity that is encountered with psychoactive cannabinoids at high doses useful in the method of the present invention.”

The report goes on to outline the specific chemical structures of CBD responsible for neuroprotective effects. The FDA claims that a lack of information about the safety and efficacy of CBD is the reason they have delayed approving its uses. However, this statement is in opposition to the Department of Health’s cannabinoid patent from 2003.

The Joint Pain Management Committee

The growing concern about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and head trauma has prompted several advocacy groups of retired NFL players and physicians to pressure the NFL for real answers as to the ban on neuroprotective cannabinoids. The criticism from players and major media like Forbes and ESPN catalyzed the NFL’s establishment of the Joint Pain Management Committee to research alternative therapies, including cannabis, cannabinoids, and CBD. The NFL needs to produce some real actionable changes from this committee before their delays on this issue start to appear malicious.

CBD is helping athletes with their performance in the ring and on the field. It’s also giving contact sports participants some insurance for their brain. For many retired players they don’t experience the costs of traumatic brain injury until long after they have finished their career. We have advocates like Nick and Nate Diaz to thank for making us all aware of the importance of CBD in sports. 

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Brown, Maury. “West Coast League’s Portland Pickles Unveil First-Ever CBD Sponsorship In Baseball.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 16 May 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/maurybrown/2019/05/16/west-coast-league-portland-pickles-reach-first-ever-cbd-sponsorship-in-baseball/#7cf28a4efa1e.

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Morgan, Matthew. “Rejected Medical Marijuana Super Bowl Ad Raises the Question- Who Is Running the Show.” Matthew Lee Morgan, Matthew Lee Morgan, 29 Jan. 2019, www.matthewleemorgan.com/blog/2019/1/29/cbs-excludes-marijuana-superbowl-ad.

“No Brainer: CBD & THC for Head Injuries.” No Brainer: CBD & THC for Head Injuries | Project CBD, www.projectcbd.org/medicine/no-brainer-cbd-thc-head-injuries.

Staff, MMA Junkie. “So, Cher Just Tweeted Support for Nick Diaz to Her 3 Million Followers.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 5 Oct. 2015, mmajunkie.usatoday.com/2015/10/so-cher-just-tweeted-support-for-suspended-nick-diaz-to-her-3-million-followers.

“US6630507B1 – Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants.” Google Patents, Google, patents.google.com/patent/US6630507B1/en.

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