Legalization easing stigma around cannabis use in sport, but more education needed to broaden acceptance
Angelina Blessed thinks high-level athletes are a perfect study group when it comes to exploring how cannabis may be able to help manage a range of health issues, calm the mind and boost performance.
The Muay Thai fighter, who has 12 professional bouts under her belt, need look no further than her own experience to see how cannabis and sport can intersect. Several years ago, the founder and CEO of Blessed Edibles was training twice a day, had a full-time job and was trying to launch her business, she told The GrowthOp in advance of Friday’s Cannabis + Sport panel discussion during Medical Cannabis Week, presented by Business of Cannabis and Aurora Cannabis.
“I was exhausted. I’d be going into training sessions already tired, already sore, already having not slept well the night before,” Blessed said. “I would have these nagging little injuries and nothing was making sense. Why was I so tired? Why am I crying? So I had to take a big step back and figure out, ‘Okay, how do I do this?’”
What worked for her “was a mixture of cannabis therapy, a little bit of time off, heading to the sensory deprivation tank and lowering my cortisol levels,” she said. “The dosage [for cannabis] that I would take for recovery is very, very different than the dosage I would take for performance, and both of those things take a while to get to,” Blessed explained. “I’m now training harder than I ever was,” she said. “I went in thinking I would just use [cannabis] for recovery and it really changed who I was and the way that I trained.”
Recovery, sleep and pain
Blessed’s take? “What I feel that everyone needs to do is start with a basic, full-spectrum CBD oil and then figure out how much THC you kind of put on top of that,” she suggested during the panel discussion.
For CrossFit athlete Lorilynn McCorrister, president and co-founder of Weedbox, what brought her to cannabis and her sport six years ago was mild insomnia. “The thing that was mainly suffering was my workouts,” McCorrister said. “Obviously, your body heals itself when you sleep and getting two or three hours a night was not enough for me to wake up, feel ready enough to push through a hard workout.” Turning to a high-THC indica strain, which she used nightly before bed, “changed my life. I was falling asleep easy, staying asleep the whole night and waking up feeling rested, which was amazing.”
Muay Thai fighter Richard Pham told attendees that, as an athlete, “longevity is the name of the game and anything I could do to preserve that is very important.” About five years ago, Pham began using CBD oil after sparring, which would help get rid of his headaches and relieve the tension in his head.
Leo Ezerins, a former linebacker in the Canadian Football League (CFL) for 10 years, is now founder and executive director of the Canadian Football League Alumni Association (CFLAA), which is not affiliated with the CFL or the Canadian Football League Players’ Association. CFLAA is now partnered with Aurora Cannabis Inc. (the original agreement was with MedReleaf Corp., which has since merged with Aurora) on an observational study involving retired professional players that will explore how medical cannabis can help manage chronic pain and associated conditions like depression, anxiety and sleep disorders, Ezerins said during his keynote. About 40 alumni, who are receiving medical cannabis for free, are taking part to date.
Ric Nattress, a former defenceman for five NHL teams—including the Stanley Cup champions, Calgary Flames, in 1989—knows a thing or two about pain. “I’ve had 16 operations, I’ve had an Achilles tendon tear, I’ve had my finger blown off from a slash and reattached, I’ve had my shoulders dislocated, broken feet, SI joint [sacroiliac joint] disorder that tore my hip flexor, my groin muscle, my stomach muscles and all the nerve endings off my pelvic bone. I’ve been diagnosed with five concussions and two skull fractures and many more for which I was not diagnosed,” Nattress said during his keynote.
Along the way, there were also plenty of white envelopes, sometimes containing anti-inflammatories or painkillers. “They’ll help you sleep, they’ll help you play, they’ll help your knee feel better, they’ll help your shoulder feel better,” Nattress said he was told. “I certainly wasn’t an All-Star; I was a grinder and I had to earn my way on the ice every day,” he said. “So when injuries occur, how hurt was I?”
Nattress now uses sativas and cannabis creams “to try and help with this chronic pain that I have. Am I looking for a cure? It’ll never happen in my eyes,” he said.
Instead, pain management is top of mind “so I can still work out and feel the difference between in-shape pain and out-of-shape pain, because if I can choose between the two, I’ll take the in-shape pain, because it’s less.”
Cannabis and concussion
“Athletes are always seen as people who take really good care of their bodies,” said kayaking World and Olympic champion Adam van Koeverden, the panel’s moderator. But four panellists—there were five in all—have experienced “repeated blunt force trauma,” van Koeverden told attendees. “It’s fair to say it’s not good for your body.”
Mike Mihelic, a former offensive lineman for the CFL and now CEO of medical cannabis prescription service Cannascribe, Inc., can attest to that. Counting “a couple of concussions” among his injuries during his playing days, Mihelic said he first began using cannabis as a recovery tool post-game, then as an aid during training and now as preventive treatment. “The benefits from CBD, I think, are just beginning to be found out and I’ve noticed a difference from using it the last few years.”
It’s positive “to see the benefits of former athletes actually using it and helping them cognitively and functionally,” Robert Frid, a former professional hockey player and executive director of Medicinal My Way, said of cannabis. “We need to really start to look back at using it actively,” Frid argued, pointing out that some athletes “played through concussions and with concussions,” but now have questions about the long-term effects.
“I was being prescribed opiates for the concussions, which doesn’t really make any sense, because it isn’t really a pain thing. I feel that people don’t really know what to do with concussions,” Blessed told The GrowthOp.
Citing possible longer-term effects, “being able to really talk to athletes about their depression and their anxiety and being able to treat it with cannabis, I think, will kind of really save more lives.”
Stigma lagging, but still in the race
Though the stigma of cannabis use in sport is falling away, “people are still kind of hiding what they’re doing, being unsure of what the rules are and being afraid of being placed into that lazy, stoner stigma, which is absolutely old news,” Blessed said in an interview.
McCorrister’s advice is that having current and former athletes be loud about the issue “is the only way we’re really going to shift the stigma and allow people’s minds to change. I think, obviously, we have a long way to go, but the fact that conversations are happening, people are interested, people are curious, that’s what’s going to push this forward,” she told attendees.
“It is only in executing partnerships with well-respected professionals in the medical cannabis space that we can hope to dispel myths around the use of medical cannabis and provide our memberships and the general public with accurate and up-to-date information on benefits and considerations around the medical cannabis treatment plan,” Ezerins emphasized.
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