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SSCA Blog Posts » Senior Capstone Essay: An Evaluation of The Use of Marijuana in Sports

Senior Capstone Essay: An Evaluation of The Use of Marijuana in Sports


Senior Capstone Essay: An Evaluation of The Use of Marijuana in Sports

June 17, 2024


At SSCA, rigorous academic work is meant to develop spiritual growth and Christian character in students, according to our mission.  What does that look like?  What do scholarly endeavors have to do with “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God,” in the words of our school verse, Micah 6:8?

The Senior Capstone is one important answer to these questions.  Students formulate a research question that tackles a tough, timely topic in light of our Micah 6:8 calling.  They conduct deep research, craft an annotated bibliography, draft an eighteen-page paper, and defend their findings before a faculty panel.  In the process, they bring their prior learning to bear on a subject of importance and complexity, honing their critical capacities while discovering how God’s purposes can be advanced in our world.

The following Capstone essay represents one of the top papers submitted this year, with two of the papers receiving a grade of “with distinction.” The essays varied in focus as is reflected in the titles: “Justice by Death: The Death Penalty and Justice,” “How Rotten Tomatoes Negatively Influences the Role of the Critic: A Two-Star Review,” and “An Evaluation of The Use of Marijuana in Sports.” Each essay had a clear, well-defended position with a strong connection to the Micah 6:8 admonition to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Please stay tuned to see the other two capstone essays published in our SSCA Blog

Corey Bowdre, author of this paper, reflects, “I was inspired to pursue my topic because it combined two subjects that I love: sports and medicine. Because my capstone project involved reading so much medical work, I learned quite a lot about how clinical trials are conducted, the various signaling systems in the body, as well as how the body performs when under the influence of different substances. I also learned how sports agencies agree upon their rules for banned substances, how these agencies interact with each other, and how athletes find ways to avoid their rules. Most importantly though, this project taught me how to gather months worth of research and forge it into one coherent paper that captures everything I wanted to convey.”

Corey Bowdre

Capstone Thesis

Mr. Vazquez


An Evaluation of The Use of Marijuana in Sports


In June of 2021, rising American sprint sensation Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for marijuana. She had recently qualified for the United States Olympic Team and was slated to participate in arguably the most competitive women’s 100m race of all time, but was provisionally suspended for one month. This caused her to miss the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which were held in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sha’Carri reported that she used marijuana to help cope with the unexpected death of her biological mother, which happened only one week earlier. Her suspension caused an electric public outroar and reopened the discourse around marijuana in sports. Should she have been granted grace and given the opportunity to race, despite breaking the rules? Did she engage in doping, and use a performance-enhancing drug by smoking marijuana? For weeks, the discourse on this topic became evermore polarizing on social media, with some labeling her as a sympathetic hero, who should have been allowed to compete, and others as a drug addict, who smokes her life away. No matter what side the public was on, one question remained clear. Do international sports agencies treat their athletes with mercy and justice regarding cannabis use?

Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a renewed public interest in sporting events. Amateur athletics was an emerging phenomenon that was growing at an incredible rate, particularly in the Western world. As sports grew in popularity, it expanded to a global scale, which brought in the need for a method of standardization. In 1912, the International Amateur Athletics Federation was formed as a world governing body overseeing athletics. As such an authority, it held the responsibility of maintaining fairness and justice within its competitions.  Concurrently, the world was looking to bring back the flagship competition for sports: the Olympics. In June of 1894, the International Olympic Committee was formed to facilitate the revival of the Olympic Games, which returned just a short 2 years later. As part of the committee’s mission statement in the Olympic Charter, it vowed to “encourage and support the promotion of ethics and good governance in sport”, “protect…the integrity of sport, by…taking action against all forms of manipulation of competitions and related corruption” and “promote safe sport and the protection of athletes from all forms of harassment and abuse”, amongst other things. Despite this role, the IOC did not have a formal way of addressing substances and how they should be regulated. To remedy this, in 1999, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was formed by the IOC to regulate and prevent the use of drugs in global athletics.  

With global sports agencies now being formed with the intent of maintaining justice and mercy in their competitions, how is this playing out amongst the athletes? One issue that has risen, especially within recent years, is whether or not athletes should be allowed to use cannabis. In the past, cannabis, including all of its derivatives, was considered a banned substance, on par with the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as testosterone, trenbolone acetate, and other various anabolic steroids. It was heavily policed and highly regulated, likely due to the lack of understanding of how this plant worked at the time. There was no question that it didn’t belong in athletics. However, in the modern day, this has become an open topic of discussion. Several athletes are now arguing that cannabis use should be allowed for use, not only recreationally, but also in the world of sports. Prominent athletes such as Kevin Durant, and Eugene Monroe have spoken out in support of the use of cannabis in sports. 

Frequency of use

The 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health concluded shed some light on the prevalence of cannabis use. It found that about 35% of young adults, aged 18 to 25, have used marijuana within the past year. With this age demographic overlapping with a large portion of athletes at the amateur and professional levels, investigations were further done to find out its use in sports. In a paper written by Docter et al, it was found that in a pool of over 45,000 elite and collegiate athletes, approximately 25% of them use cannabis. A study conducted by Zeiger et al found that a similar percentage of athletes, 26%, use cannabis. Furthermore, several states within the US have decriminalized both its recreational and medicinal uses. With such a shift in the treatment of this plant and its derivatives, a reevaluation of its effects is due. What is cannabis and how does it affect athletic performance? Why is this still considered a banned substance in international competitions and how should it be treated on a global scale?  

Explanation of Cannabis

Cannabis is a genus of plant used to make some of the most popular drugs in the world, being listed as the second most used recreational substance worldwide, behind only alcohol, per the  2020 World Drug Report. It is native to central and eastern Asia and has been cultivated by humans since the Neolithic period, at least 12,000 years ago. Though two other species exist, the primarily raised one is C. sativa. Through hybridization between these species, different effects can be produced. In the modern day, this plant goes by dozens of different names: marijuana, pot, weed, dope, reefer, etc, and for the most part, these names are used interchangeably. For simplicity’s sake, cannabis and marijuana will be used unless specified otherwise.

 Over 400 biochemicals, called cannabinoids, are specific to this genus of plant, but the main two are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which are particularly known for their psychoactive effects and ability to alter the nervous system. These two cannabinoids, more specifically called phytocannabinoids, are the most studied and seem to have the most relevance in this discussion. THC, which is the only intoxicant or active component of the two, is not found in high amounts naturally in cannabis. Instead, it is usually found as tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, abbreviated as THC-A. While it can still be used by the body, THC-A is not psychoactive, and cannot contribute to the “high” effect.  It can, however, cause a multitude of other effects, ranging from nausea to reducing inflammation. Only after it has been heated can THC-A be converted into THC and produce the “high”. For this reason, cannabis is usually smoked or baked before ingestion. Shortly after cannabis is ingested, whether it be by inhalation or oral administration, THC and CBD are absorbed into the bloodstream. From here, they are quickly distributed to highly vascularized areas of the body such as the heart, liver, lungs, and brain. Due to the nature of the respiratory system’s close relationship with the cardiovascular system, cannabis is absorbed into the bloodstream and reaches these areas far faster when it is inhaled as smoke. Upon reaching these vascularized areas, the two cannabinoids can interact with the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a cell signaling network that controls and regulates several processes in the body including appetite, mood, pain, memory, etc. To start this system, cannabinoids must bind to cannabinoid receptors, of which there are two.

The first receptor is called cannabinoid receptor type 1 or CB-1. It is found in its highest densities on neurons, which are the cells that make up the brain and the peripheral nervous system. When endocannabinoids bind to neurons, this activates them and causes them to release chemicals called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters then signal the body to start a particular action or give you a particular feeling. THC binds very well to this type of receptor and is thus found mostly in the brain after consumption. When THC binds to a CB-1 receptor it acts as a partial agonist. This means it blocks natural endocannabinoids from binding to the receptors, inhibiting their function. However, because THC is so chemically similar to these endocannabinoids, it still allows these actions to happen, but to a dampened level. While more research on this needs to be done on this topic, the partial agonization of neurons in different brain regions seems to be a major contributing factor to the euphoric feelings many people report when they are “high”. On the other hand, CBD cannot bind to CB-1 receptors in the same way as THC. It can attach to these receptors and change their shape, but it is incapable of interacting with them in the same way as THC. Because it cannot bind in the same way THC does, CBD cannot activate the receptor and is thus not considered psychoactive. However, when CBD attaches to a CB-1 receptor, its shape changes in a way that prevents THC from binding to it. For this reason, CBD is called a negative allosteric modulator of THC and can be used to block the “high” effect that it brings. 

The second type of cannabinoid receptor is called cannabinoid receptor type 2 or CB-2. While it can be found in the brain, CB-2 receptors are typically found throughout the body, usually in the lymphatic and immune regions. Specifically, these receptors can be found on immune cells, such as lymphocytes and monocytes, as well as spleen cells, and more. CB-2 receptors in these areas of the body help control the regulation of inflammatory responses. THC doesn’t have much of an effect on these receptors, but CBD does. When CBD is attached to CB-2 receptors, similarly to what happens in CB-1 receptors, they change their shape. Instead of preventing THC from binding, this can help prevent natural endocannabinoids from binding. As a result, inflammation can be reduced, which is why CBD is sometimes used as an anti-inflammatory drug.

Cannabis and athletics

With this understanding of how cannabis interacts with the endocannabinoid system, how is this relevant to athletic performance? Surprisingly, even with this system being relatively well understood, there is still a dearth of research about how cannabis consumption relates to athletic performance. The data that does exist has shown conflicting results. So many variables exist that could impact this, such as whether or not an athlete is a chronic cannabis consumer, the dosage when cannabis is used, etc. Despite this, the two main cannabinoids found in cannabis are scrutinized in sports for 2 separate reasons. Because THC is psychoactive, it is seen as an intoxicant that can impair judgment, similar to how alcohol works. The feeling of being “high” prevents athletes from being at full mental capacity, which could be incredibly dangerous depending on what the sport in question is.

As of today, it is not fully clear whether or not cannabis should be considered ergogenic, meaning performance enhancing, or ergolytic, meaning performance inhibiting. Even though this topic was first researched over 3 decades ago, not much new information on this specific facet of cannabis consumption has been put out. Most studies on the physiological effects of this plant have been done on non-athletes, and thus results must be extrapolated to make conclusions. Despite this, a study conducted by Pesta et al 2013 analyzed the effects of THC and various other commonly consumed substances on exercise. In this study, THC was found not only to increase resting heart rate, including systolic and diastolic blood pressure but also these levels were elevated when in exercise. While exercise does naturally raise both of these levels, going beyond the levels your body naturally raises to is potentially harmful. When your body increases these levels in exercise, they’re meant to rise in response to an adequate stimulus. This is so that your body has enough oxygen and other resources to enact whatever action is needed. However, in this instance, there’s no immediate physical need. Raising blood pressure in any instance puts more stress on your heart. When our heart rate is elevated without the adequate stimulus, this unnecessary increase can cause the heart to be stressed, and impair performance. As a result, the physical work capacity when the heart rate was elevated due to THC was found to have decreased by about 25%.  THC’s psychoactive effects were also shown to have negative results as well.  Due to its impairment of neurotransmitters, THC was found to hinder cognitive performance. This hindrance to cognitive performance manifested itself in numerous ways. A study conducted by Ramaekers et al 2006 found that acute THC caused a decrease in performance throughout numerous tests. The subjects were tested on their acute motor control, motor impulses, reaction time, and critical thinking.


As shown in the graph above from the aforementioned study, individuals who smoked marijuana were shown to have a significant reduction in reaction time. The circle represents the placebo group. The square represents those who smoked 250 microliters per kilogram of marijuana and the triangle represents those who smoked 500 microliters per kilogram. Even when accounting for error bars, the individuals who smoked marijuana had a drastically reduced reaction time. The marijuana took time to metabolize, peaking at around 90 minutes, and slowly subsiding as time went on. These effects subsided after enough time passed for it to pass through the body. 

Although several clear ergolytic effects have been shown, many neutral and potentially ergogenic effects have been found. THC use has been shown to induce bronchodilation or opening of the airways. For this reason, it has sometimes been used to help treat instances where someone requires immediate airflow, such as an asthma attack. This presents a possible avenue through which cannabis could be used in a medical context. In an athletic setting, some might say this could provide a performance-enhancing effect. Most athletic movements and sports are aerobic, meaning they use oxygen to produce energy. For this process to occur, the lungs must be open enough to allow the bronchioles to absorb oxygen. When the lungs and corresponding airways are more open, this provides more surface area for oxygen absorption, allowing more energy to be produced. If cannabis can aid in opening airways, surely it would enhance an athlete, right? A study conducted by Renaud and Cormier 1986  discovered that cannabis, called marijuana in the paper, increased VO2 max before and after exercise was finished. VO2 max is the direct measure of the rate at which oxygen is used by the body in exercise. However, it was not found to produce an increase in VO2 max during exercise, staying around the same level. Because marijuana was not found to increase VO2 max beyond the expected level in exercise, this combats the idea that it is performance-enhancing and suggests that it does not provide any athlete with an unfair advantage.

In line with its possible uses in oxygen consumption, cannabis is also relevant for other medicinal purposes, particularly recovery. Amongst these properties is pain management. Once again, THC is the main driver of this effect. As stated earlier, THC preferentially binds to CB-1 receptors, which are more often than not, found on nerve cells. Many of these nerve cells are in the brain and control the body’s pain response. By binding to these cells, neurotransmitters that normally would send a signal causing pain are blocked. In this way, THC is a direct inhibitor of pain. CBD, on the other hand, is an indirect inhibitor of pain through its antioxidant properties. CBD does this by attacking free radicals. In short, free radicals are unstable atoms or molecules that are very reactive. They can easily cause significant tissue damage and lead to inflammation. By stopping the proliferation of these free radicals, inflammation is decreased. Decreased inflammation can lead to less stress on the joints, and especially for an injured athlete or someone with arthritis, this can go a long way in preventing pain. Because of THC and CBD’s pain-preventing properties, some see it as a positive alternative to opioids. A study conducted by Boehnke et al 2016 saw a 64% reduction in opioid use among individuals who used medicinal marijuana. Without posing nearly as much risk as opioids, Additionally, CBD has been shown to reduce anxiety levels, which definitely could help a patient who is experiencing great mental stress. CBD accomplishes this by enhancing the signaling of neurotransmitters that produce positive feelings, such as anandamide. A very similar effect can be reached with serotonin.

One of CBD’s best traits manifests itself as a combination of these effects, improved sleep quality. The reduction in pain and negative emotions brought on by the use of CBD can make it easier for athletes to sleep, which is a crucial element of recovery. During sleep, your body can divert a lot of its energy away from processes such as conscious cognition and movement to repairing and recharging. This is especially important to professional athletes, who need ample time to recover to perform at a maximum level.

All in all, marijuana seems to have far more positive applications to athletes and the general public than it does to negative ones. Its medicinal purposes can help those who are having acute breathing issues, clear the mind from states of stress, and reduce inflammation. It does not appear to give athletes a competitive advantage but can be used like any other medicine.

The regulation of cannabis

For a significant time in athletics, cannabis use was frowned upon. Beginning back in 1989, the IOC (International Olympic Committee), included marijuana on its list of banned substances. In 2004, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) published its first list of prohibited substances. To qualify for prohibition, the substance in question would need to violate at least two of the three criteria, which are as follows: 1) It has the potential to enhance or enhance sports performance 2) It represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete 3) It violates the spirit of sport. WADA concluded that the use of cannabis violates these rules, causing it to be included on the list. In 2011, this ruling was reevaluated in a study conducted by Huestis et al and published in the journal Sports Medicine. This time, it was found to violate all 3 rules. It was potentially harmful due to its ability to impair judgment and increase blood pressure, potentially performance-enhancing due to its ability to open airways and reduce negative emotions like fear or depression, and violated the spirit of the sport due to the fact that it is still considered an illicit drug in most areas of the world. Considering that WADA regulates international competitions, allowing the use of a drug that is banned in most of the world would be deemed distasteful. The authors further argued that athletes should be role models who were supposed to uphold their country’s rules. For this reason, cannabis was banned in competitions. As of 2018 though, WADA added nuance to its prohibition on cannabis. It removed CBD from its list of banned substances but kept THC. Because it has no demonstrated psychoactive effects and doesn’t seem to have any significant negative outcomes, it is no longer considered something that would impair the spirit of sport. On the other hand, THC remains banned. For context, alcohol is also on this list of banned substances, adding credence to the idea that THC is not banned for being performance-enhancing.

In recent years, domestic sports agencies have begun to change their policies regarding cannabis as well. The NBA used to have relatively strict rules regarding the use of marijuana by its athletes. Different punishments for different offenders used to be in effect. First-time users were required to enter the NBA’s drug program, second-time users were fined, third-time offenders were suspended, etc. As of July 1st, 2023, the NBA signed a seven-year collective bargaining agreement with its player’s association that removes marijuana from its list of banned substances. Under this deal, which lasts until 2030, marijuana will no longer be included in routine, random drug tests. Additionally, this deal now allows players to invest their money into owning stock in companies that sell CBD products. It even goes as far as to allow players to participate in advertisements for said companies, with the NBA’s permission. Essentially, the NBA now holds marijuana on the same level it holds alcohol. Players are not explicitly prohibited from its use but are expected to use etiquette. It is fine for recreational use, but being high during an interview or on TV would be deemed as unprofessional, and could result in consequences. This change seems to have widespread support throughout the league, with athletes such as Kevin Durant, J.R. Smith, and AJ Harrington speaking in support of marijuana’s use in the past. AJ Harrington even went as far as to say 85% of NBA players use cannabis in some form anyway. While this is simply a one-off estimate with no empirical research to back it up, it does demonstrate America’s general shift towards leniency regarding this drug. Over 70% of the states the NBA operates in have fully legalized marijuana. Marijuana is now part of everyday life and baked into sports.

Other professional American sports leagues have begun to accept marijuana as well. In 2020, the NFL signed a new collective bargaining agreement that massively overhauled its previous regulations. Prior to the new deal’s signing, marijuana testing could occur at any time in the off-season, from April to August. With the new rules, players were now allowed to use marijuana in the off-season and were only tested in the two weeks of training camp, no longer throughout the year. Marijuana usage remained banned throughout the season. Even with marijuana remaining banned, the NFL changed its threshold for what qualifies as a positive test result. Before the change, a measure of 35 nanograms of THC would give a positive test, but now the level is over 4 times higher, at 150 nanograms. Moreover, the penalty given for a positive test was also reduced. A player who tests positive now only receives a fine of up to three week’s pay, rather than being immediately suspended. As one might imagine, these policy changes have made it much easier for NFL players to use marijuana without being caught. Travis Kelce, a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, estimated that 80% of NFL players use marijuana. According to him, all they have to do is avoid using it in the weeks leading up to testing, which only occurs in training camp. After that, they use it recreationally throughout the season despite it still being officially banned during this time. Lastly, the NFL and its player association, the NFLPA (National Football League Player Association), have donated a significant amount of money to CBD research. They granted 1 million dollars to researchers at the University of California San Diego and the University of Regina to explore the potential of CBD as an alternative pain medication to opioids. Two grants of over $500,000 were given to similar research at Emory University. 

Christian view of cannabis use

The issue of marijuana is never directly brought up in the Bible. Despite this, the Bible addresses adjacent topics that shed light on how this should be discussed from a Christian perspective. First, the Bible tells us in places such as Romans 13:1-2 to listen to the laws established by ruling bodies. If a Christian is living in an area where marijuana is deemed to be illegal, then they should not use it. Perhaps this could be interpreted to also mean following the rules of any governing body, like a sports organization. For Christians who don’t live in such areas, the conversation is more difficult.

While not the same, the Bible gives guidelines on alcohol usage and why we are to remain sober. Ephesians 5:18 explicitly states “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” This is expanded upon in 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8, where Paul describes why being drunk dampens the Christian experience. Being drunk is likened to a state of spiritual darkness, which needs to be drowned out by the light of the Holy Spirit in sobriety. 1 Peter 5:8-9 also states to “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” As Christians, we are called to be attentive and alert at all times. Being in a clear mind state allows us to best represent God to the world and helps us to obey his commands most effectively. Without being sober, a Christian cannot be in the correct mental state to put on the armor of God. A state of delirium would hinder me from being able to effectively share the gospel or help those around me. Beyond simple impairment, an intoxicated state can pull the mind into dark places. As Ephesians 5:18 alluded to, this opens up the mind to fall into places God does not desire us to be. If our mind is occupied by a state of insobriety, it cannot be occupied by the Holy Spirit and thus is more prone to sin. We are called to not be of the world but of God. 

While marijuana is not the same as wine, THC’s psychoactive properties closely mirror the effect of being drunk. Similar to alcohol, being under the influence of THC does alter the mind, preventing the user’s normal line of thinking. Smoking marijuana recreationally would put Christians in a compromised mind state, arguably putting them in violation of what the Bible says.  If the Bible tells us not to be drunk because it hampers the mind, would this same logic apply to marijuana? Can a Christian athlete use cannabis for medicinal purposes? What about its recreational purposes? 

This answer is complicated. There don’t appear to be any works from Christian scholars on this specific topic, so we must rely on what the Bible says to come to this conclusion. Recreationally, a Christian probably should not be using this plant. The effects it gives off overlap too much with alcohol for it to be argued for a Christian to use. That being said, it does still have a myriad of ways that it can be applied in a medical setting. Therefore from a purely Christian perspective, marijuana should only be used in a therapeutic context. 

My position/conclusions

Based on the work presented so far in this paper, the most reasonable conclusion is that athletes should be allowed to use cannabis in sports. International sports organizations have not gone far enough to allow its use, despite guidelines becoming more relaxed in recent years. The justifications I’ve seen for its ban are not adequate, have clear logical flaws, and are largely based on emotion rather than hard data. If we’re remaining consistent with other cases, cannabis does not provide enough of an enhancement nor enough of a detriment to an athlete to have a reasonable case for its prohibition. 

As stated earlier, the World Anti-Doping Agency has kept cannabis on its banned substance list because it violates all three criteria: the potential to enhance performance, the spirit of sport, and the potential to cause harm to an athlete. Amongst these, the “spirit of sport” appears to be driven most by subjective opinion, rather than data. According to WADA, the spirit of sport is an ideology that encompasses many different values, such as fair play, exercise, fun, joy, teamwork, etc. Its principal values are as follows: fairness and justice, risk of harm, proportionality, science-based, and education/public/athlete engagement. While it is true that the compromised mind state that THC offers is potentially harmful in some aspects of sports, I’d argue that it does not pose a threat large enough to warrant prohibition. The effects of THC vary from person to person. When some people use it, they report symptoms of panic or fear. For others, it functions as a calming agent that can help the athlete relax and return to a natural calm state. Note that this is not an enhancement, simply returning back to a neutral state.

Global sports agencies currently do not show full justice and mercy to their athletes with regard to cannabis use. While steps have been taken to make their rulings fairer, true justice and mercy will not be shown to athletes until cannabis is fully removed from the list of banned substances. 


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