The German Sport University Cologne-led study found 30% of urine samples collected eight hours after the CBD supplements, foods and beverages were consumed, contained prohibited levels of 16 tested-for banned cannabinoids.
“In light of these data, comprehensive information and thorough education of athletes concerning the risk associated with the consumption of hemp products is of utmost importance in order to avoid an unintentional antidoping rule violation through the permitted use of hemp products,” the researchers wrote.
The findings highlight the risks elite athletes face when consuming CBD products, with all natural and synthetic cannabinoids banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) except CBD itself (cannabidiol), as well as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) below a threshold of 150 nanograms per millilitre.
While these products may present no threat to the general public, elite athletes who undergo frequent and forensic anti-doping testing risk getting tripped up by cannabinoids – of which there are more than 100 and all of which form part of WADA’s prohibited list.
Examples include CBG (cannabigerol), CBN (cannabinol) and CBC (cannabichromene).
Such formulation uncertainty means NSF International’s Certified for Sport program and LGC-owned Informed-Sport refuse to certify CBD products like tinctures, creams, pills and gels.
The cannabinoid problem has led to more than 60 doping infringements internationally even as some athletes actively promote CBD products for purported gains like muscle recovery and sleep as part of sponsorship deals.
The situation is somewhat muddied by the fact anti-doping organisations are not always transparent about which cannabinoids are tested for.
Harder on WADA?
UK-based nutritionist, food law expert and managing director of Legal Foods, Dr Mark Tallon, believes the study highlights the untenable situation facing elite athletes when it comes to CBD use.
“Either remove all cannabinoids from the WADA list or contact all WADA code drug-tested athletes and let them know cannabinoids will be tested for and bans will be issued if any level of cannabinoids are detected,” Dr Tallon says.
“This is unlike caffeine where it was ubiquitous and mass used in foods. CBD products can be avoided very easily. The regulators need to make a choice so elite athletes can make theirs.”
Dr Tallon explained the fixation on modulating THC levels within food law parameters by CBD product makers meant the other cannabinoids often slipped through the quality control net.
"They simply ignore the possible presence all other cannabinoids present as trace elements from extraction or resulting from degradation in the product over time,” he adds.
The CBD-anger zone
Athletes broadcasting CBD use via sponsorship deals or otherwise could face unwanted consequences, according to Dr Tallon.
“At times the food businesses simply don’t know about cannabinoid problems but at other times they simply don’t care as long as an athlete is happy to stick their name on it. The result has been widespread use and promotion by elite athletes.”
“What amazes me is athletes posting on Instagram and similar social media images of themselves holding CBD products that are from botanical sources. These will 100% contain other banned cannabinoids and as such if I was a competitor I would be sending such evidence to anti-doping,” he observes.
“Its equivalent to holding up a needle of (banned drug) EPO – both cannabinoids and EPO are illegal but cannabinoids other than THC are simply not tested for and there is little if any enforcement by anti-doping agencies.”
Dr Tallon says assurances from CBD firms that their products contain no banned substances, “will not be of use in an arbitration during a doping violation hearing – although potentially of use in private litigation if the athlete is banned due to the use of a CBD product.”
“As such athletes and business should arm themselves with the knowledge of fact and not of best guess, especially as we are talking about a potential career ender here.”
Changes may be coming down the line as WADA is more broadly reviewing the performance benefits of cannabis with the potential it be deemed non-performance enhancing and removed from the prohibited list – and with it all currently banned cannabinoids.
Questionable performance benefits
Dr Tallon believes CBD sporting benefits are not strongly backed in the existing scientific literature in any case.
“Most commercial products are unlikely to deliver any meaningful performance benefit with most benefits being the placebo effect,” he says.
“The data is in its infancy outside of very high dose trials for rare forms of epilepsy and some anxiety disorders. The vast majority of data is rodent or mechanistic in nature.
“Studies using high street doses demonstrate no health benefit over the short to medium term in well controlled trials. However, chronic use my result in cumulative effects but we don’t have the data.”
Products used in the study included oils, teas, syrups, cookies, chocolates, spreads, seeds, protein mixes and beer.
Source: Drug Testing and Analysis
Published online: https://doi.org/10.1002/dta.3327
'Risk of unintentional antidoping rule violations by consumption of hemp products'
Authors: Ute Mareck et al.