Finn Russell uses it to help him fall asleep. Jerome Kaino takes something to relieve knee pain. While Jim Hamilton takes it to cope with the pain he’s still living with five years after retiring.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is used by the British and Irish Lions Fly half, two-time All Black World Cup winner and former Scotland Ineligibility, among others, to help manage the pain caused by the brutality of the sport.
But what is it How does it work? And is it safe? In the first of a two-part series, BBC Scotland examines the role of cannabis extract in rugby.
Why are players using it?
Rugby is one of the most physically demanding sports around. And as the players get bigger and stronger, the pressure on their bodies continues to grow, especially on a crowded calendar.
Strength and stamina, diet and sleep are the most important recovery methods. But often that’s not enough, so players resort to pain relievers ranging from common anti-inflammatory pills to strong opioids like tramadol.
Kaino, who was world champion with New Zealand in 2011 and 2015 and is known for his massive tackles, “always” used anti-inflammatories to aid training sessions and games.
“You’d be surprised how many players resort to one or the other strong pain reliever to get rid of a few bumps and bruises,” the 38-year-old told BBC Scotland.
“I’ve had a big reaction to anti-inflammatories. I’ve always had bowel problems, but to feel the joints properly I needed to be able to take them every now and then.”
What is cannabidiol (CBD)?
- Cannabidiol is one of the hundreds of components (cannabinoids) that make up the cannabis plant.
- The main element of the plant is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychotropic element that gets people high and can lead to health problems.
- But the World Health Organization (Who) says that CBD does no harm and is not addictive.
- The World Anti-Doping Authority (Wada), which regulates rugby’s anti-doping policy, removed CBD from its prohibited list in 2018.
- Cannabis is a Class B illegal drug in the UK, but CBD alone is legal.
Former Scottish and Saracen Hamilton has lived in pain years after retiring. He too has suffered from the side effects of pain medication.
“I lived on them,” he says. “Especially at the end of my career, I was taking anti-inflammatories every day. Almost like a vitamin regimen, just to get through the week. And that’s why I still carry a stomach ache with me.”
Hamilton says he saw teammates become addicted to opioids because they were so easily accessible.
Rugby culture has changed over the past five years and it’s much harder for players to get these stronger substances, but the pain the sport causes lingers and keeps players looking for alternatives.
CBD oil has proven to be one of the most popular.
How does CBD help?
Scotland and Racing 92 Fly-Half Finn Russell is a user and advocate of CBD. He has invested in a company that sells the product founded by his former Glasgow teammates Adam Ashe and Grayson Hart.
Russell takes CBD oil before going to bed at night and sometimes when he wakes up, especially in the days after a game. One of the main benefits he describes is better sleep.
“I sleep all night instead of stop-start,” the 28-year-old told BBC Scotland. “I get a more stable and even sleep.
“It will be different for everyone. It doesn’t relieve the pain in place, but it does allow me to sleep well so that I feel much better the next day.”
The science of cannabis
Hamilton and Kaino – neither of whom have no business interest in CBD – have found similar improvements in their sleep, but also other effects.
“When I have a big training session, I get a lot of inflammation and a little fluid in my knees – that’s where I’ve seen the biggest improvement,” says Kaino.
The back row also credits the product with a career extension, having recently won the Champions Cup with Toulouse at the age of 38, despite having played in one of the most physically demanding positions on the court.
“In the past few years, I’ve had some surgeries and gnawing injuries in my knees, elbows, and shoulders. 100% CBD has been a huge impact and a great contribution to maintaining my level of play over the past few years.”
Is there an anti-doping risk?
Liverpool John Moores University conducted a study last year asking 517 professional rugby players about CBD use. The majority had never used it before, but a quarter had it at some point and 8% continued to do so.
Professor Graeme Close collaborated on the study and is also an advisor to the English team. He says the main concern is the lack of education about the risks of an anti-doping violation, even though CBD itself is not on Wada’s prohibited list.
Just under three-quarters of those who use CBD products said they got information about them from the internet, with 61% receiving advice from another teammate and 16% from a nutritionist.
“The fact that players are not getting qualified advice is worrying,” explains Professor Close. “Since this is a fairly new product, we are still not fully aware of the safety profile of CBD. There really are no long-term studies.”
These concerns are reflected in the attitudes of most rugby unions and clubs.
Players employed at Scottish Rugby are prohibited from promoting CBD products and are encouraged to evaluate the risks and take them in conjunction with any other supplements they may wish to use.
Some companies that offer CBD products have their offerings tested by three different laboratories across Europe to make sure there is no THC present. And while small amounts of it are allowed, other cannabinoids can are not.
“There are well over 100 cannabinoids in the hemp plant,” says Professor Close. “Only one of them is not banned from the Wada and all the others are.
“So when an athlete takes CBD, we need to know that they are getting it from a source that we know there are no other cannabinoids that would fail an anti-doping test.”
Informed Sport is testing dietary supplements and is widely considered to be the gold standard for products in the UK, but does not currently accept CBD products. It remains to be convinced of its safety from a doping point of view.
However, by 2024, the industry is expected to be worth $ 20 billion (£ 14 billion), and athletes in all sports continue to use, promote and invest in CBD products.
“When I was younger, instead of taking drugs, I took the plant-based route,” says Russell. “So it’s similar. I’ve had this all my life and it’s just one more step for me in the current phase of my career.
“It comes from a plant, so what can you say, it’s different from other things you get? It is up to the individual what they want to do, but for me I have no qualms about taking it and I will continue to take it. “
Could CBD become “like protein shakes”? Find out more in part two on Thursday