Cannabis has been an integral part of our culture for hundreds of years. Since the rise of the War on Drugs, however, the plant has been the subject of constant controversy. Today, many of the world’s greatest athletes are turning to cannabis products to relieve pain and cope with the stresses of training and competition. While NFL players have openly admitted to using cannabis to manage pain, NBA stars such as Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh have also been photographed with cannabis products in their hands. For some, the stigma associated with cannabis prevents athletes from truly opening up about their use of the plant.
Athletes and others who compete at the highest levels in sport have long turned to cannabis products to help manage their pain and enhance their performance.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is used by British and Irish Lions midfielder, two-time All Black world champion and former lock of Scotland’s national team – among many others – to relieve pain caused by the violence of sport.
Why do players use it?
Rugby is one of the most physically demanding sports. And as players get bigger and stronger, the pressure on their bodies increases, especially with a busy schedule.
Strength and conditioning, nutrition and sleep are the main methods of recovery. But that’s often not enough, so players turn to painkillers, ranging from common anti-inflammatories to powerful opioids like tramadol.
Kaino, who won the World Cup with New Zealand in 2011 and 2015 and is known for his powerful tackling, has always used anti-inflammatories to help in training and matches.
You’d be surprised how many players resort to this kind of medication or stronger painkillers to try and get rid of some bumps and bruises, the 38-year-old told BBC Scotland.
I had a severe reaction to the anti-inflammatories. I’ve always had intestinal problems, but to keep my joints in good shape, I had to take some from time to time.
Former Scotland and Saracens second-rower Hamilton is still living with the pain years after his retirement. He was also suffering from the side effects of painkillers.
I lived off them, he says. Especially towards the end of my career, I was taking anti-inflammatories daily. Almost like a vitamin diet to get through the week. And because of that, I still have a lot of pain in my stomach.
Hamilton says he saw his teammates get addicted to opioids because they were easily available.
Rugby culture has changed over the past five years and it has become much harder for players to obtain these powerful resources, but the pain of the sport remains, causing players to look for alternatives.
CBD oil has proven to be one of the most popular oils.
How can CBD help?
Racine 92 Scottish midfielder Finn Russell is a user and supporter of the CBI. He has invested in a company that distributes the product, founded by his former Glasgow teammates Adam Ash and Grayson Hart.
Russell takes CBD oil at night before bed and sometimes after waking up, especially in the days after the game. One of the main benefits he describes is better sleep.
I’d rather sleep than be disturbed, the 28-year-old told BBC Scotland. I have a more stable and regular sleep.
It will be different for everyone. It doesn’t relieve the pain immediately, but it makes me sleep well and feel much better the next day.
The Science of Cannabis
Hamilton and Caino – neither of whom has a commercial interest in CBD – noted a similar improvement in sleep, as well as other effects.
When I do a heavy workout, I get a lot of inflammation and fluid build-up in my knees – that’s where I see the biggest improvement, Caino says.
The defender also believes that the product has extended his career: He recently won the Champions Cup with Toulouse at the age of 38, despite being in one of the most physically demanding positions on the pitch.
Over the past few years I have had several surgeries and injuries to my knees, elbows and shoulders. CBD has been 100% a big influence and has helped keep my level of play up over the past few years.
Is there a doping risk?
Last year, Liverpool John Moores University conducted a study asking 517 professional rugby players about their CBD use. Most have never used it, but a quarter have used it at some point and 8% still do.
Professor Graham Close, who is also an advisor to the England national team, collaborated on the study. He says the biggest concern is the lack of education about the risks of doping violations, even though CBD is not on WADA’s list of banned drugs.
Just under three-quarters of those using CBD foods said they got information about them from the internet, 61% got advice from a colleague at work, and 16% consulted a nutritionist.
The fact that players are not getting qualified advice is worrying, says Professor Close. Because it is a relatively new product, we do not yet fully know the safety profile of CBD. There is no long-term research.
This concern is reflected in the position of most rugby unions and clubs.
Scottish rugby players are not allowed to advertise products containing CBD. They are advised to assess the risks and need for its use, as well as other supplements they may be considering.
Some companies offering CBD products test their offerings at three different labs in Europe to ensure they are THC-free. And while small amounts of this substance are allowed, other cannabinoids are not.
There are more than 100 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, says Professor Close. Only one of them is not banned by WADA, all the others are.
So if an athlete is using CBD, we need to know that it is coming from a source that we know does not contain other cannabinoids that would not pass a doping test.
Informed Sport tests supplements and is widely regarded as the gold standard for products in the UK, but it does not currently accept CBD products. It remains to be seen if he is safe from doping.
Yet the industry is expected to be worth $20 billion (£14 billion) by 2024, and athletes across all sports continue to use, promote and invest in CBD products.
When I was younger, I chose to go the herbal route instead of taking medication, Russell says. So this is what it looks like. I’ve had it my whole life, and at this point in my career, it’s just another level.
It comes from a plant, so what can I say, it’s different from the other products you get? It is up to the individual to decide what they want to do, but I have no problem taking the medication and will continue to do so.