Should pot really be considered a “performance-enhancing substance”? A “first-of-its-kind study” at the University of Colorado in Boulder aims to find out.
When American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was denied a chance to compete at the Tokyo Olympics this summer due to testing positive for marijuana, it brought attention—and plenty of skepticism—to the reasoning behind the prohibition of cannabis in the world of competitive athletics.
The so-called SPACE study (“Study on Physical Activity and Cannabis Effects”), announced on Monday, “will enlist more than 50 paid adult volunteers who already mix cannabis and exercise for a study involving three sessions,” the university said in a press release.
“In the first, researchers measure heart rate, have subjects answer a questionnaire and take some baseline fitness measurements. Then, participants are assigned to go to a local dispensary and pick up either a specific CBD-dominant strain or THC-dominant strain,” the announcement said. “On one follow up visit, they return, sober, to run on the treadmill for 30 minutes, answering questions every 10 minutes to assess things like their perception of the passage of time, how hard the workout feels, what they’re thinking about, and how much pain they’re in. On another visit, they do the same, only they get high before they come.”
Laurel Gibson, a PhD student in the University of Colorado’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and principal investigator of the study, said that the study will help fill in a gap in cannabis research.
As the university’s announcement explained, due to a dearth of research in the area, “scientists are unsure just how Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD)—the two primary active ingredients in marijuana—influence physical activity.”
“To date, there are no human studies on the effects of legal market cannabis on the experience of exercise,” Gibson said. “That’s where we come in.”
“Cannabis is often associated with a decrease in motivation—that stereotype of couch-lock and laziness,” Gibson continued. “But at the same time, we are seeing an increasing number of anecdotal reports of people using it in combination with everything from golfing and yoga to snowboarding and running.”
The federal prohibition on weed has prompted the researchers to make certain accommodations with their subjects.
Due to the law, which “prohibits the possession or distribution of marijuana on college campuses,” the press release explained, the subjects will consume the pot at home “before a researcher picks them up in a mobile laboratory—a white Dodge Sprinter van sometimes referred to as the ‘cannavan’—and brings them safely to the lab.”
The runners will also don a safety belt around their waist while using the treadmill, as an extra precautionary measure.
Angela Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado who is serving as the faculty advisor on the study, said that the research could yield a breakthrough for older individuals for whom exercise is too painful.
“If cannabis could ease pain and inflammation, helping older adults to be more active, that could be a real benefit,” Bryan said.
Gibson, meanwhile, said that the research could shed light on the link between cannabis use and the “runner’s high” that has been romanticized by joggers the world over.
“It is possible that exogenous cannabinoids like THC or CBD might activate the endocannabinoid system in a way that mimics the runner’s high,” Gibson said.
Richardson failed a drug test less than a month before the Olympics kicked off in Tokyo, keeping her out of the summer games. Marijuana is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, as well as the United States Anti-Doping Agency and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
In September, the World Anti-Doping Agency said that it would reconsider its ban on cannabis.
The USADA has said that pot is banned both because it could present a safety risk to athletes, and that it could potentially enhance performance.
The latter explanation was widely mocked, including by Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen, who came to Richardson’s defense.
“Marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug unless you’re entered in the Coney Island hot dog eating contest on the Fourth of July,” Cohen said at the time. “To take her right to appear, her dream, away from her, is absurd.”