Can marijuana benefit athletes’ in-game performances?

Scott Nies

graphic illustration depicting four famous athletes with the words "Weed Testing in Athletics" above
(Graphic Illustration by Colin Crawford | The Collegian)

Athletes have long preached about the recovery benefits of marijuana and its derivatives. Whether it is the anti-inflammatory properties found in cannabidiol or the pain relief that THC, marijuana’s psychoactive component, can provide or often a combination of both, athletes have become increasingly vocal in recent years about the plant’s positive effects. 

So, while it is clear that marijuana is capable of benefiting athletic performance, it may ultimately be more of a testament to the athlete and their mental fortitude rather than the supposed miracle properties of the drug itself.” 

A narrative that gets far less attention is the athletes that are outspoken about the effect marijuana has directly on their performance abilities. Many athletes admit to playing high during their professional careers after they retire, but aside from pot’s recovery properties, is there an argument for any in-game benefits? 


“Cannabis in Sport,” an article by Marilyn A. Huestis, Irene Mazzoni and Olivier Rabin published in Sports Medicine in 2011, looked to examine that exact question. 

“Athletes under the influence of cannabis indicate that their thoughts flow more easily and their decision-making and creativity is enhanced; others claim that cannabis improves their concentration or reduces pain,” the article states. “Health professionals have encountered athletes including gymnasts, divers, football players and basketball players who claim smoking cannabis before play helps them to focus better.” 

Matt Barnes, a 14-year veteran of the NBA and outspoken supporter of the benefits of marijuana, said in an interview with Bleacher Report that he believes a lot of his success on the court came when he was high.

“All of my best games, I was medicated,” Barnes said in the interview. “It wasn’t every single game, but in 15 years, it was a lot.” 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that the effects of THC can include difficulty with thinking and problem-solving, changes in mood and impaired memory and body movement; however, the article in Sports Medicine hypothesizes effects that are often perceived to be negative can actually have positive effects on performance when framed in the context of sports. 

“Clearly, cannabis induces euphoria, improves self-confidence, induces relaxation and steadiness and relieves the stress of competition,” the article said. “Cannabis increases risk-taking and this perhaps improves training and performance, yielding a competitive edge.” 

Former NFL tackle Eben Britton is another example of a professional athlete who believes their performance was greatly improved with marijuana. 

In an interview with the New York Post, Britton said, “NFL games I played stoned were some of the best I ever played. Cannabis cements your surroundings.” 

Britton’s comment directly reflects the idea of marijuana’s ability to enhance sensory perception, another benefit addressed in the “Cannabis in Sport” article. 

As marijuana continues to be removed from banned substance lists and is less tested for in professional sports, more evidence will become available on if there are direct correlations between improved performance and usage of the controversial leaf. 


Huestis, Mazzoni and Rabin’s article directly addresses the need for more information to be more comprehensive, but as of now, many signs point to greater benefits in performance than initially expected. 

“In conclusion, although more scientific information is needed, based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance-enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines,” the article said

The article’s conclusion brings up an extremely valid point that the potential benefits of cannabis in sports cannot be generalized to all athletes. 

According to a report republished on Neuroscience News originally led by Steven Laviolette Ph.D., a professor at the University of Western Ontario’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, the different ways people respond to the effects of marijuana is due to the individual makeup and the subsequent differences of humans. 

“Our data indicate that because the reward and aversion are produced by anatomically distinct areas, the different effects between individuals is likely due to genetic variation leading to differential sensitivity of each area,” the study said.

This means that athletes like Barnes and Britton may have been able to utilize the effects of marijuana to their advantage simply because they are genetically wired to handle it in a functional manner.

So while it is clear that marijuana is capable of benefiting athletic performance, it may ultimately be more of a testament to the athlete and their mental fortitude rather than the supposed miracle properties of the drug itself. 

Scott Nies can be reached at or on Twitter @scott_nies98.