The ESL, one of the largest eSports organizations in the world, will include cannabis in its newly-announced plan to randomly test competitors at its events for performance enhancing drugs.
This means that either your stoner friend was right and smoking weed really does make him better at Call of Duty, or that the ESL is adopting archaic anti-drug policies that equate marijuana with heroin. I'm not sure which is more concerning, but both explanations highlight that we're still not very good at regulating cannabis.
The ESL announced that it will begin randomly testing players for performance enhancing drugs last month, shortly after professional eSports player Cory "Semphis" Friesen admitted he and his team used Adderall, a psychostimulant usually used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), during a $250,000 ESL event.
It's been widely speculated that eSports players use Adderall, but Friesen's public statement sent ripples through the eSports world and eventually led the ESL to announce new anti-doping policies. Starting with its event in Germany later this month, it will test players for a number of substances in addition to Adderall, including marijuana.
The ESL is forming these new policies with the help of World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which aims to bring consistency to anti-doping policies and regulations within sport organizations and governments across the world. Its cornerstone is a list of prohibited substances, presented simply as "The List" on its website.
"We're banning marijuana because it is already on the banned list of substances as defined by WADA, and it's that list we're going to use," ESL head of communications Anna Rozwandowicz told Motherboard.
As if to preemptively address the flood of baked commenters asking why the ESL would do this, it addressed the cannabis issue separately.
"Marijuana is on the list of prohibited substances for during the competition," the ESL said. "This means that recreational use of it outside (before) the event days will not be punished. Using it during the tournament—from the start of the first day until the end of the last day of competition—is strictly prohibited."
The competitive advantage you'd get from Adderall, a drug that increases your ability to concentrate, is obvious. eSports players train for long hours every day, and if you could better focus during training or at a live event, where you're playing in front of thousands of people, you could get an edge over players who don't use Adderall.
If you've used marijuana before, you might not have had the same effect or felt that your cognitive abilities were improved otherwise.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director at the marijuana legalization advocacy group Norml, told Motherboard that there are no scientific evidence that marijuana would improve your skills.
"With tongue firmly planted in cheek here, the only group of people that should probably be facing a drug test for marijuana as a performance enhancing drug would be people engaged in professional eating competitions," he said.
According to St. Pierre, the only reason marijuana is on WADA's list is because the organization is carrying water for the government, which classifies it as a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.
"I see what [the ESL] is doing, but WADA is unfortunately comporting with a prohibitionist mentality," St. Pierre said. "They bought into the Reefer Madness that most of the country has largely jettisoned. 51 percent of the American public, according to Gallup polling, want marijuana legalized. I think these gaming organizations should recognized that the public no longer respects marijuana prohibition."
Even WADA's explanation for why marijuana is still on The List is not very convincing. WADA spokesperson Ben Nichols told Motherboard in an email that the organization "stipulates that a substance or method can be considered for inclusion on the WADA Prohibited List (which is reviewed every year) if it is determined that it meets two of the following three criteria: it has the potential to enhance sport performance; it represents a health risk to the athletes; and it violates the spirit of sport."
Of the three criteria listed above, the moralistic point about "the spirit of sport" is hard to argue against. You may not like it, but if WADA or any other organization thinks that professional athletes smoking phat blunts is against the "spirit" of basketball or League of Legends, they're entitled to their opinion.
The point about it posing a health risk is the easiest to dismiss. Even the worst effects that the squarest URL on the internet can muster, drugabuse.gov, is "anxiety" and "difficulty with thinking and problem-solving," which contradicts the first and supposedly most important criteria: the potential to enhance performance.
St. Pierre said that he's heard, anecdotally, that athletes in individual sports like running and biking attribute their success to marijuana, but there's no scientific evidence to confirm it.
"The banning of Adderall, for me as a non-pharmacist, makes eminent sense," St. Pierre said. "It seems like a performance enhancer, whereas marijuana, I haven't seen an argument that it is, even though I'm open to this discussion."
Motherboard, as you might recall, tested the effect of cannabis while playing video games and found a slight improvement. We've also found at least one study that said that while cannabis had contradictory effects, it could give the player an advantage.
"Cannabis could be performance enhancing in sports that require greater concentration… improvement of vision for goalkeepers and muscle relaxation… cannabis smoking reduces anxiety, allowing athletes to better perform under pressure and to alleviate stress experienced before and during competition," the study said.
One of the biggest problems with cannabis' legal status is that it's not studied a lot, so it's hard to say conclusively whether or not it can make you better at video games, but it's not as ridiculous of a notion as it may first appear.
"We're at the beginning of this process and WADA's list and procedures are a good place to start," Rozwandowicz said. "We're not excluding the possibility of making an esports-specific list or adjusting the WADA rules as we move along, however that is something we will look into when we're further down the road."
Whether the ESL is banning marijuana from its events because it sincerely believes that it gives players an unfair advantage or because it's been taken by reefer madness, the decision to test players for cannabis highlights just how dated our understanding of the drug is, even for a young organization with a young audience in a business so new it's still being ridiculed by traditional sports.