Athletics: Rugby Star Touts Cannabis’ Benefits
“I had used cannabis for fun since I was 13, but didn’t have my first big ‘aha’ moment about its therapeutic properties until after a rugby game about 10 years ago,” says Anna Symonds, MA, a Portland, Oregon–based rugby player who competes in the USA Rugby Women’s Premier League. Still, she adds, “I didn’t start using cannabis more strategically and systematically until about 2013.” Then, she started using it for sleep management, and after a disc injury to her lower back that caused chronic pain and spasms, her use and interest increased. From there, she took a deeper dive into the research and she’s now a leading advocate for cannabis in athletics. Symonds’ rugby career includes a 2014 USA Rugby Division I National Championship, selection to the National All-Star Competition, and 2003 Sydney Premiership Championship. Symonds represented the United States at the 2015 Touch Rugby World Cup and has won national championships in Touch (minimal-contact rugby) with the Portland Hunters in 2007, 2013, 2017, and 2018.
Cannabis in Sports
As an Ambassador for Athletes for CARE, Symonds integrates her competitive athletic experience, cannabis science research knowledge, and graduate-level education in communications. She speaks widely about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for athletes and the need for destigmatization. Athlete Ambassadors such as she represent the organization’s mission and goals. CARE stands for:
• Community—building relationships and giving back to communities;
• Advocacy—a united powerful voice to advocate for improved health, wellness, and safety for all athletes;
• Research—commitment to helping expand research that directly impacts quality of life; and
• Education—increasing awareness about health issues affecting athletes, eg, chronic pain, traumatic brain injury, and opioid dependence, and educating society about effective alternative treatments such as cannabis.
What are the benefits of cannabis use for athletes? Symonds notes that CBD and THC work best in combination. “The two compounds interact in a synergy that boosts the overall therapeutic profile by activating multiple mechanisms of action, while also balancing the other’s effects,” she explains. This synergism—called the entourage effect—results from the interaction of the many cannabinoids and THC working together in the body to produce a stronger action than that created by CBD or THC alone. CBD can modulate the psychoactive effect of THC, and cannabis cultivars can be developed to contain various ratios of CBD and THC depending on the desired therapeutic effects. For example, research suggests that cannabis with approximately equal amounts of CBD and THC may be more effective for pain relief. “Ideally, CBD and THC should be consumed as part of a full-spectrum product or whole-plant extraction to create a well-rounded experience through the entourage effect,” Symonds says. However, she notes that athletes who undergo strict drug testing often need to use products made from CBD isolate, rather than full-spectrum products.
For athletes and others curious about the use of cannabis for health benefits, Symonds emphasizes that cannabis therapeutics is personalized medicine, and it can take some experimentation with different products to find the individual’s “sweet spot.” When working with patients, clinicians should “remember to start low and go slow when trying to find the optimal personal dose,” she says.
Looking to the Future
“An important part of empowering athletes’ health is correcting the unscientific stigma attached to cannabis and THC,” Symonds says. A huge step, she believes, will be for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to remove THC from its prohibited substances list and stop testing athletes for it. As an ambassador for Athletes for CARE, she spearheaded a petition about this issue to WADA; it was signed by more than 150 professional athletes. On January 1, 2020, WADA removed CBD (in oil, spray, tincture, and cream forms) from its list of banned substances; however, products containing THC are still banned during in-competition windows. “We will need to continue this momentum and keep pushing WADA for reform,” she says.
Another promising development for the future of cannabis and athletics is the 2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement under negotiation between the National Football League (NFL) and the NFL Players Association, which is likely to include significant changes to the league’s drug and disciplinary policies related to cannabis, Symonds says. A May 2019 Washington Post article reported that the NFL and NFL Players Association formed a joint committee to study the prospective use of cannabis by players as a pain management treatment, and, as a result, reforms to the NFL’s marijuana use policy are likely. “This change would be a huge step forward for athletes in the NFL to use their medicine of choice, and a step forward culturally in openly recognizing the therapeutic properties of cannabis rather than wrongly treating it as a drug of abuse,” Symonds asserts.
Off the Field
Although she’s a star player in advocacy related to sports, Symonds’ advocacy extends well beyond athletics.
She’s the director of education at East Fork Cultivars, an Oregon-based, environmentally responsible organization that develops and farms high-quality, diverse, CBD-rich hemp. In that role, Symonds developed the free educational program, CBD Certified, through which she has directly educated thousands of people about the foundations of cannabis science. “CBD Certified is a free CBD-focused cannabis science educational seminar that is evidence based and product agnostic,” she says. She’s presented the education program for the staffs of more than 100 dispensaries across Oregon, as well as for industry groups and the general public. Information on in-person classes and online webinars can be found at https://eastforkcultivars.com/cbd-certified.
Symonds also educates local, state, and national legislators, and advocates for full legalization of cannabis, improved patient access, and removal of barriers to clinical research. She is a member of the International Cannabinoid Research Society and, in 2020, was appointed to the Research Leadership Subcommittee of the Oregon Cannabis Commission.
In addition to her work with Athletes for CARE, Symonds is also active in the Last Prisoner Project and the Concussion Legacy Foundation. With the former, she advocates for social justice for the 40,000-plus Americans still imprisoned for cannabis possession while others are free, and for building cannabis-related businesses and wealth as states legalize its use.
The Concussion Legacy Foundation is dedicated to addressing the increasing incidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and postconcussion syndrome, both conditions for which medical cannabis is prescribed and researched as an alternative treatment. Symonds helps support research into these conditions to advance the study, treatment, and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes and others at risk for brain injury.
— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a health care researcher and freelance writer in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area.