Cannabis and the WADA list

marijuana-leafThe New Zealand Drug Commission has recently weighed in on the inclusion of cannabis on the WADA List. It offers viewpoints for and against its inclusion. One point not addressed in its viewpoints section, however, is one that is close to home: Over 50% of anti-doping rule offenses committed by New Zealand athletes stem from cannabis use. In fact, a rugby league athlete who tested positive for the substance on three separate occasions recently received a 10-year ban from sport–that is, he cannot play, coach, or participate in any way.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Drug Free Sport New Zealand (DFSNZ), the government-funded organization that delivers anti-doping programming, lobbied WADA to remove cannabis from its Prohibited List in 2007, arguing “the mechanism developed to address performance enhancing drugs is not the right one to address the social drug issue.”

I am writing about the complexities of anti-doping regulation within and beyond New Zealand in my book and in other articles, asking: what are the implications of these developments? That is, what does it say about the anti-doping regime if it’s catching recreational drug users? Further, if we consider the vast popularity of marijuana use in New Zealand more generally and its regular use with the lower grades of rugby league and other sports, who ends up getting caught? Likely not those actually using performance-enhancing drugs, especially when DFSNZ channels so many resources into athlete education and outreach to prevent anti-doping rule violations for illicit drug use.

In both New Zealand and the United States, my ethnographic fieldwork revealed that the athletes who “got caught” were often those most invested in sport, those from working-class backgrounds who saw sport as a professional opportunity. Many of them came from immigrant families and didn’t realized that “telling the truth” in this regime didn’t get you out of punishment, but actually ensured your punishment. In fact, early on when doing research at the California State Athletic Commission, it was actually the athletes with more money and resources who avoided penalties, because they had access to lawyers who could make more effective appeals. Rarely did they ever admit to doping, because they knew if they did, punishment was inevitable–even for marijuana use.

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