A Christchurch sports lawyer has questioned whether sports people using cannabis should be treated with the same severity as “true drug cheats” who take performance enhancing or masking drugs.
Ian Hunt represented Canterbury rugby league player Vince Whare, who has been banned for 10 years by the Sports Tribunal of New Zealand for a third cannabis offence. The World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) code requires third-time doping offenders to be suspended for life although the ban can be reduced to a minimum of eight years. It does not draw a clear distinction in terms of penalties for recreational drugs like cannabis and sanctions for taking performance-enhancing substances.
Hunt argued before the tribunal that Whare should have received the minimum eight-year suspension because cannabis was not performance enhancing.
He told The Press yesterday he did not want to specifically comment on the Whare case but he had a general concern that the Wada code, as it reads, “doesn’t allow for recognition of the differences between non-performance enhancing drugs such as cannabis and performance enhancing or substance masking drugs, in terms of penalties”.
The issue was “the elephant in the room” in the anti-doping arena, Hunt said.
He believed the tribunal had accepted “there are distinctions to be made” between recreational and substances with performance enhancing or masking agent properties. “They also allowed, as I hoped they would, that the nature of cannabis as a substance could not be ignored when they were considering how to apply the Wada codes and the [Sports Anti-Doping] rules.”
But there did not seem to be any “latitude” in the rules, which were “black and white”. There was “no distinction whatsoever drawn between EPO, a steroid or cannabis. Yet, clearly, there must be some distinction drawn when you are talking about a substance that doesn’t have those enhancing properties, which is what we really think of as being a [drug] cheat.”
Hunt said a sportsperson guilty of a third cannabis offence received a much tougher penalty than those imposed by a criminal court for “possessing or smoking a small amount of cannabis”.
“You could argue that the kind of sanctions imposed on [Whare] – he can’t do anything, he can’t coach, can’t play, can’t run the line, referee or be an official in any Wada-recognised sport – are a pretty severe set of sanctions for anybody.”
Hunt said no-one had any problems with severe penalties issued to “Balco-type offenders” who used steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. They were what the tribunal had termed, “true drug cheats”.
“We all want drug-free sport. But we are talking about whether or not cannabis, which doesn’t enhance performance, should be treated the same way as performance enhancing drugs or masking agents.”
Hunt said the rules and the Wada code had been formed as an “agreed response” to the problem of doping in sport. “What I would question is whether or not it was contemplated when the rule was drafted that it had these kind of consequences for non performance enhancing [substance users].
“Did someone think through and say, `hang on, [what] does this mean for someone who’s caught for the third time smoking dope [but] doesn’t gain any advantage from it and it’s not masking any other substance? Are we really saying he, too, should face the same consequence as Marion Jones or Floyd Landis, or someone like that.
“Of course, they’re not third time offenders, but I’m talking about the seriousness of what they were doing.”
Jones was jailed for six months in 2008 after admitting taking performance enhancing drugs. She was stripped of the five gold medals she won at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Landis was stripped of the 2006 Tour de France cycling crown and banned from international competition until 2009 after returning a high ratio of the hormone testosterone to the hormone epitestosterone in a urine sample.
Hunt said the doping codes were introduced “not to change social behaviour, but to prevent athletes taking performance enhancing drugs from gaining an advantage.
“I suspect the reason for cannabis’ inclusion [on the prohibited substances list] has to do with quite powerful parties, such as the US, who for reasons to do with their own fight against drugs, generally, want it to be there.
“I think you’d find there are a lot of countries who would have some reservations about cannabis’s proper place in the whole regime, but it’s a consensus document.
“But this is the sort of case or outcome that raises questions as to whether it should be there.”
Hunt said almost every major sport in New Zealand had signed up to the Sports Anti-Doping Rules 2009.
It would be technically possible for a sport to adopt the rules in their entirety with a caveat that “in the event of a third cannabis violation the sanction will be a minimum of four years rather than eight [as set out in the Sports Anti-Doping rules and WADA code].”
But any sport doing that could potentially jeopardise its relationship with Sparc.
By TONY SMITH