By Ben Stanley
Picture the scene: The lounge of a New Zealand home during an idle, sunny, low-pressure Saturday afternoon, late in 2021. The stereo is cranking some chill tunes, and a good feed is being prepped on the barbeque, out on the deck. Inside a group of old friends is gathered together, and the good vibes are flowing as easily as they did back in the old days. A fresh batch of pot brownies is produced from the oven, and a plate of them is passed around the room. The accountant takes one, and so does the civil engineer. The plumber takes another, as does the tech guru. The plate reaches the final friend, who is a pro athlete. Her palm is raised: "Sorry, guys," she says, "you know I can't."
In international sports doping, cannabis remains a Rubicon still not fully forded – but faces increasing challenges to stay that way as more countries consider its place in society, both medicinally and recreationally.
New Zealand has begun wading into the world of cannabis legalisation, with the referendum on its status being held alongside next year's general election.
Expanded use of medical cannabis for terminally ill patients was passed into law last year, with a specific loosening on cannabidiol (CBD), which is non-psychoactive.
A passed cannabis referendum would go much further, as draft legislation released by the Government showed this month.
Though tightly regulated by the Government, consumption, sale and purchase of cannabis for recreational use would become legal for 20-year-olds and older, while its usage would be allowed in licensed premises and private homes.
Though polling has been inconsistent, a recent Horizon Research study, commissioned by licensed medicinal cannabis company Helios Therapeutics, showed 52 per cent of Kiwis were behind legalisation, compared with 37 per cent against (11 per cent had no opinion).
Even though the New Zealand Drug Foundation says about 80 per cent of Kiwis have tried cannabis by the age of 21, its fumes have stuck to athletes who have partaken in its use.
Former Tall Blacks Mark Dickel and Corey Webster copped bans for cannabis in 2006 and 2010, while two provincial league players – Vince Whare and Samuel Henry – are both serving suspensions for the drug.
Easily the most enduring cannabis scandal in Kiwi sporting history occurred when test cricketers Stephen Fleming, Matthew Hart and Dion Nash confessed to smoking a joint at a barbecue during a tour to South Africa in 1994.
All three were suspended from the national team, while the public scorn heaped on the trio seems unjustifiably brutal, viewed through today's lens.
"Their behaviour is endemic of the malaise that appears to have infected the game … this has been one of the darkest weeks in the history of our sport," Peter McDermott, then the chair of New Zealand Cricket, told media in the incident's aftermath.
Few athletes understand being in that position like former Olympic champion Ross Rebagliati.
After winning the gold medal for the giant slalom at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, the Canadian snowboarder tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the chemical that gives cannabis its psychoactive qualities – and was stripped of his medal.
At the time, cannabis wasn't even on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned substance list and Rebagliati became – and remains – the only Olympian to have his medal handed back to him.
Cannabis was later added to the list, and Rebagliati was turned into a sporting pariah.
"All of a sudden, I got blasted out across the world," the 47-year-old former Olympian tells the Herald, on the phone from his home in British Columbia, Canada.
"I had to live through the stigma. I lost sponsors. I was put on the no-fly list, I wasn't allowed into America."
Twenty-one years later, Rebagliati's home country has legalised the drug. Yet regardless of its new status in places like Canada, California or Colorado – and perhaps soon New Zealand – cannabis remains on WADA's banned list.
It's considered a threshold substance, and athletes who return an "in-competition" positive test of more than 150 nanograms of THC per millilitre (ng/mL) of urine face a suspension.
For context, random workplace urine tests administered in New Zealand and Australia usually set the bar far lower, at around 50 ng/mL.
There has been significant loosening of attitudes towards the drug at world anti-doping's highest levels in recent years, though.
In 2013, WADA raised its threshold from 15 ng/mL to its current level. Rebagliati, who has always maintained his consumption of cannabis in 1998 was via second-hand smoke, tested positive at 17.8 ng/mL.
Last year, WADA also removed CBD from its banned list.
"It is important to note that the list is not static but evolves based on new scientific evidence," the organisation told Reuters last October.
Rebagliati, who now runs Legacy Brands; a company focusing on CBD consumables and home-growing kits, has been encouraged by WADA's changing attitude to cannabis.
"It's just one of those things that is going to take time," he says.
"The higher-ups in the sporting world are conservative-orientated, they come from a different generation [and] different countries that have different views on things like that.
"The fact that they are raising the bar on THC and have taken CBD off the list has opened a lot of doors for the conversation to occur amongst coaches and governing bodies. It's super encouraging."
Increasing international studies have shown how cannabis could be beneficial for athletes, especially on pain relief and muscle recovery, while this year in Canada a study of more than 100 former ice hockey players was commissioned to look at how the drug could assist in concussion rehabilitation.
Drugfree Sport New Zealand has long disagreed with WADA on its classification of cannabis as a banned substance.
With support from High Performance Sport NZ, the national sports anti-doping agency has long submitted to WADA that cannabis shouldn't be on the prohibited list.
"We've said it for 10 years, and we're going to keep saying it: We don't think it enhances performance," Drug Free Sport NZ chief executive Nick Paterson says.
"We recognise there are potential health risks for persistent users … but from a pure benefits in sport perspective, we don't think it's performance enhancing. I don't see our position changing in the future."
Despite their position on cannabis, Drug Free Sport NZ's mandate to test at WADA's set threshold won't change even if New Zealand law does.
Don't expect much difference in the way the overwhelming majority of Kiwi athletes approach the drug, either.
Since WADA upped the THC threshold in 2013, there has been a considerable drop in positive cannabis tests for our athletes. No more than "four or five" have over-stepped the mark since, Paterson says.
Drug Free Sport NZ has been in constant communication with its Canadian counterpart since cannabis was legalised there last year – and will ramp up its education campaign on the drug for athletes around New Zealand's referendum in 2020.
Like in Canada, exemptions will be likely for Kiwi sportspeople who can prove they have a medical need to use cannabis (see 'Medical cannabis exemptions likely for Kiwi athletes' below).
WADA's increasingly pragmatic approach to the drug is set to continue too, with its anti-doping code currently under review.
The new code is expected to be in place from January 2021 with a specific segment talking about recreational drugs such as cannabis and cocaine.
Current drafting suggests "in-competition" positive tests for either drug would likely result in a relatively brief three-month ban, which could be reduced to one month if the athlete agrees to counselling.
"The drive of that, I understand, coming from WADA, is recognising that recreational drug use in sport can be a societal problem, not a sport problem, so let's address as such," Paterson says.
Pressure continues to mount on WADA to go further, too.
This year the World Health Organisation recommended cannabis be reclassified under international drug treaties, while just last week more than 100 high-profile athletes, including former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, published an open letter lobbying WADA to make the drug free for all athletes to use.
"It's ironic, the whole cannabis issue, WADA and my story – it's all very connected," Rebagliati says, when asked how much has changed for athletes when it comes to cannabis over the years.
"Twenty-one years ago when I was in Nagano, WADA was staunchly opposed.
"It's been a long 20 years for me. I've been speaking out in favour of cannabis. I've been facing the brunt of the storm, with regards the stigma, but as an athlete with my credentials, I was able to rise above the fog that people didn't want to look at with other stereotypical cannabis users.
"For me as an Olympic athlete, as an Olympic gold medalist, a father of three, I'm in the best shape of my life right now.
"For someone like me to start saying cannabis … is family-orientated, it's safe and non-addictive – those were very controversial things to say 20 years ago.
"I've held true to what my beliefs were," he continues.
"I had experience with alcohol, but I wasn't into recreational drugs growing up. I came to realise that cannabis was a healthier choice for me, on a recreational level - and as an athlete."
Medical cannabis exemptions likely for Kiwi athletes
Kiwi athletes should be able to apply for medical exemptions to use cannabis if next year's referendum on legalising the drug passes into law.
Regardless of whether it becomes legal in New Zealand or not, cannabis will remain a banned substance on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)'s doping list, meaning athletes who test positive for it face bans.
Yet NZ's national drug testing agency for sport says it is likely to allow athletes to use various cannabis products – including those that include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which gives the drug its psychoactive qualities – "in-competition" if they can prove they require the substance for medical treatment.
"For us, [it would be] a medicine like any other medicine," Nick Paterson, Drug Free Sport New Zealand's chief executive, told the Herald.
The move would follow in the footsteps of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), who, following their country's own legalisation of the drug, have set up a rigorous medical exemption process.
Under CCES rules, athletes must provide a comprehensive medical history for their diagnosis, results of a complete medical exam and supporting letter from their physician to apply for medical exemption to use cannabis.
Drug Free Sport NZ already has similar exemption stipulations in place for other banned substances, such as insulin and various asthma medications, and cannabis would be no different.
"If you're an athlete and you are prescribed a drug for a proper purpose via your physician, and you've got all the notes and reports and what have you to go with it, you apply to us [and] say [for example] 'I'm diabetic and need insulin'," Paterson says.
"Insulin is prohibited in sport, [but] you apply to us and we say 'you need your doctor's report and a whole bunch of stuff', which goes to our therapeutic uses exemption [TUE] committee."
An independent panel made up of four doctors, Drug Free Sport NZ's TUE committee assesses an athlete's need for medical treatment via a banned substance before judging whether they can be provided with an exemption to use that medication.
"They look at it and say, 'yep, you've got a genuine medical need, you've got a genuine medical diagnosis, this is a genuine medical prescription', and for the period of your needs going forward – it might be eight weeks, it might be six months – you have got an exemption, in that case insulin," Paterson says.
"If we test you during that period and get a positive result, we look on file and see you've got a TUE … you're allowed to have those levels.
"That gives you a proper chance, as an athlete who happens to be diabetic, to compete against people who aren't diabetic – and cannabis will be no different."
Numerous international studies have shown cannabis' beneficial medicinal qualities, especially regarding pain relief and muscle recovery.
This year in Canada more than 100 former NHL ice-hockey players signed on to a study to monitor how cannabis usage could positively assist in concussion rehabilitation.
As its benefits have become clearer, WADA has significantly loosened its rules on cannabis testing over the past decade.
In 2013, WADA raised the allowable "in-competition" threshold for a positive cannabis test from 15 nanograms per millilitre of urine to 150 ng/mL, while last year, it removed CBD as a banned substance.
Paterson says Drug Free Sport NZ has lobbied WADA for most of the past decade to remove cannabis from its banned list, arguing the drug is not performance-enhancing for athletes.
Two Kiwi athletes – provincial league players Vincent Whare and Samuel Henry – are both serving bans for using cannabis. Both bans will end before the cannabis referendum occurs next year.