The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) rules around cannabinoids in sport have led to many questions from athletes and there is often confusion about what products present risk. There are more than 100 cannabinoids prohibited during the in-competition period* and they can be found in a wide range of products. Some hemp products contain cannabinoids that are prohibited in-competition.
Here’s what athletes need to know about hemp products and the risk of testing positive from those products.
What is hemp?
Hemp is a botanical class of Cannabis sativa grown specifically for industrial or medicinal use. It can be used to make a wide range of products. In 2018, the US Farm Modernization Act defined hemp as any Cannabis plant that contains less than 0.3% THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) by dry weight. In contrast, Cannabis plants that contain more than this amount of THC are classified as marijuana. Now (post- 2018) it is easier to grow and harvest hemp because it is no longer a Controlled Substance, whereas the marijuana plant (which contains more THC) remains a Controlled Substance at the federal level.
Is hemp allowed in foods?
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), hulled hemp seed, hemp seed protein powder, and hemp seed oil are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for use in conventional foods (1). This means that food companies can legally include hemp seed protein or oil in foods or add them to beverages. These are the only hemp ingredients that the FDA has clearly stated are allowed in foods. No other hemp ingredients are officially recognized as safe or permitted in foods.
Sometimes foods list “hemp protein” and the label doesn’t specifically say hemp seed protein. As an athlete, you are encouraged to ensure that any product that advertises hemp protein actually contains hemp seed protein or another legally permissible hemp ingredient.
On their website, the FDA clarifies that even though hemp is from the same species as cannabis (marijuana), the seeds themselves do not naturally contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp seed-derived ingredients “contain only trace amounts of THC and CBD, which the seeds may pick up during harvesting and processing when they are in contact with other parts of the plant. Consumption of these hemp seed-derived ingredients is not capable of making consumers ‘high.’”
In contrast, hemp extracts, like those often advertised as containing CBD, are not legally permitted in foods or dietary supplements.
Is hemp allowed in dietary supplements?
Any ingredient that is permitted in foods is also permitted in dietary supplements because those ingredients meet the legal definition of “dietary ingredient.” Therefore, hulled hemp seed, hemp seed protein powder, and hemp seed oil can be marketed in dietary supplements.
Does eating hemp protein pose an anti-doping risk?
It is possible that consuming hemp protein could pose an anti-doping risk if the product containing the hemp is consumed close to or during a competition.
A recent study (2) looked at the cannabinoid contents of 23 hemp products, including hemp beer, tea, oil and syrup, hemp butter/spread, hemp cookies, and hemp protein powder. The researchers found that 20 of the products contained a variety of cannabinoids, and four of the products contained a full spectrum of cannabinoids, including measurable amounts of THC. One hemp herb butter spread was found to contain seven different prohibited cannabinoids, including CBG, CBN, CBC, CBDV, CBGA, CBDA, and Δ8-THC! Equally troubling, Δ8-THC is appearing more frequently in dietary supplements even though it is not a legal dietary ingredient and is not legally permissible in food.
The researchers had volunteers consume the hemp products and they collected urine eight hours later. Of the 46 urine samples collected, 13 would have been reported as adverse analytical findings if testing had occurred in real athletes during the in-competition period. In seven urine samples, researchers identified CBG, CBC, CBDV, and CBGA in the samples of volunteers up to 32 hours after they consumed the hemp product. The study only evaluated a limited time frame, so it’s possible some cannabinoids can remain detectable for much longer.
While there were also many hemp products that did not lead to a positive test for cannabinoids, it’s important for athletes to recognize that labels are not a reliable way of assessing risk. In this case, it was not possible to predict the presence of prohibited cannabinoids in hemp products from just looking at the label. And while some products claim to be THC-free, athletes should be aware that there are more than 100 other prohibited cannabinoids that could be present in the product, all of which are prohibited in-competition. It is not just THC that is the issue.
And while CBD is a permitted cannabinoid (and the only one), even CBD supplements present some risk for athletes since supplements are regulated post-market and no regulatory agency confirms the contents of supplements before they reach consumers.
What are the safest options for consuming hemp protein?
The safest option for athletes would be to not consume any hemp product during the in-competition period. This includes hemp seed protein and hemp protein powders for sale in grocery stores as food items. Repeated or long-term use of hemp protein powders out-of-competition could also cause the accumulation of cannabinoids that remain detectable for a long time and those periods of time cannot be predicted by USADA.
For questions about specific products, substances, and methods, contact USADA’s Drug Reference Line at drugreference@USADA.org or call (719) 785-2000, option 2. There is also a TUE Pre-Check Form that athletes can submit to get a quick response on whether a TUE is necessary.
In addition to educating athletes and offering real-time support, USADA offers resources and tutorials for athlete support personnel, including health professionals and coaches.
*In-competition refers to the period commencing at 11:59 pm on the day before a competition in which the athlete is scheduled to compete through the end of such competition and the sample collection process related to such competition. WADA may approve alternative definitions for particular sports.
- US Food and Drug Administration. 2018. FDA Responds to Three GRAS Notices for Hemp Seed-Derived Ingredients for Use in Human Food, on US Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/cfsan-constituent-updates/fda-responds-three-gras-notices-hemp-seed-derived-ingredients-use-human-food. Accessed 8/9/2023.
- Mareck U, Fussholler G, Schertel T, Petring S, Huestis MA, Thevis M. 2022. Risk of unintentional antidoping rule violations by consumption of hemp products. Drug Test Anal doi:10.1002/dta.3327.