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On the morning of the 2005 Rochester Marathon, Brian Lane considered not showing up to the race.
Juggling his job with the US Postal Service, raising two children and going through a divorce took the wind out of his sails early that day, and running a long-distance race felt like a chore. But people were expecting him to be there, so he dragged himself out of bed, took four heavy bong rips and made his way to the starting line.
Lane ran the 26-mile race with a time of 3:11:23, finishing 16th out of 658 runners and qualifying for his first Boston Marathon.
“I actually found I was very fast as a long-distance runner without having to train very hard,” said Lane, an owner and compliance officer at Rochester-based hemp processing company NOWAVE, and host of “Hempthletics,” a podcast about incorporating cannabis into exercise.
“I think it’s the most under-talked about niche,” he told NY Cannabis Insider.
As legalization pushes marijuana further into the mainstream, a subset of users some call “cannathletes” are becoming increasingly visible, and the weed industry is responding. Scientists and experts interviewed say the market is much larger than they previously thought, and could develop into a profitable sector in New York.
Lane credits his podcast for opening his eyes to how many athletes fold weed into their training, he said, and he hopes their stories will drive down the notion that marijuana is a substance for couch potatoes.
“Everybody who is a regular cannabis user that I have brought onto my show, they’re all active,” he said. “There’s nobody sitting on their couches doing nothing.”
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The elite sports world has been openly hostile toward athletes who use marijuana for decades, but has shown signs in recent years of relaxing their policies: The National Hockey League doesn’t take action against players who test positive for cannabis, Major League Baseball removed the drug from its banned substances list and the National Football League loosened its restrictions last year. The National Basketball Association maintains its ban.
But nowhere was anti-cannabis policy in sports more visible in recent memory than when USA Track and Field effectively banned sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics after she tested positive for marijuana. That action sparked a debate about cannabis reform in sports.
NOWAVE plans to enter New York’s adult-use industry, and will apply for a conditional processor’s license once the state begins accepting applications, Lane said. His long-term goal is to release a line of products that cater to the cannathletic market.
A developing market
Lane isn’t the only one looking to service the new market, said Josiah Hesse, a Denver-based journalist and author, whose 2021 book Runner’s High dives deep into marijuana’s athletic uses.
Companies currently serving the athletic market include OFFFIELD – which makes gummies, sports drinks and other products that include THC and other cannabinoids – and Wana Fit, which makes gummies infused with THCV.
“The market for it, I’d say, is endless; there’s no demographic that cannabis doesn’t reach: young people, old people, all races, all political affiliations, all economic backgrounds,” Hesse told NY Cannabis Insider.
Researching his book, Hesse talked to Angela Bryan, a physician and researcher at University of Colorado at Boulder, who surveyed cannabis users about what they used it for. In a survey sample of about 600 self-proclaimed marijuana users living in legal states, about 80% reported using weed before, during or after workouts.
“Before some of this research, before my book, most people had no idea how popular this trend was of combining cannabis and athletics, and most people who did it had no idea how big it was,” Hesse said.
Some uses of cannabis in conjunction with exercise already have pretty strong scientific backing, while others still need more research-based evidence, said Dr. Ethan Russo, who worked as a clinical neurologist before founding CReDO SCIENCE, which researches the cannabis plant and the endocannabinoid system with the goal of patenting and commercializing products.
When people talk about mixing cannabis with athletics, it’s generally in one of two ways, he said: using weed after a workout to recover, or using it before or during to enjoy the activity and to maintain focus. That THC and CBD have pain-killing and anti-inflammatory effects that can help following a workout is pretty well established, Russo said. However, the idea that weed can help people during a workout is more nuanced.
Research into the topic, along with his own experience skiing under the influence of marijuana, have shown Russo that weed can shift a person’s mindset in a way that gibes with physical activity.
“Being able to key into the rhythm that was required for the activity” is a benefit, Russo said. “It also is possible that it produces an attitudinal shift toward exercise so perhaps it isn’t as onerous.”
Hesse said professional athletes he’s talked to said using cannabis before training or competing allows them to shut out thoughts about hectic travel schedules and family obligations, and focus on the game.
However, marijuana and sports isn’t a one-size-fits-all mix, Russo said. While much of the cannabis industry’s focus in recent years has been on THC, other cannabinoids and terpenes in weed work together to create different experiences for different people.
“It would be within the realm of possibility to have structured ideas of what kind of profile, biochemically, with cannabis goes best with what activity,” Russo said. “People who understand these concepts could help tailor the right chemical variety of cannabis to their desired activity.”
Research Dr. Greg Gerdeman did about a decade ago showed higher levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide in people’s blood after exercise than before, and other research suggests anandamide triggers the phenomenon known as “runner’s high.”
Gerdeman is co-founder and president for specialty crop exchange the Nashville Commodities Exchange (NASHCX). He has a PhD in pharmacology and has studied the neuroscience of cannabis and cannabinoids for about two decades. He said that for most people, weed strains that are low in THC and high in CBD and other cannabinoids are likely best for exercise.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that marijuana can change peoples’ moods in such a way that helps them enjoy exercise, and focus while they’re doing it, Gerdeman said. But the peer-reviewed studies are lacking, which could make it hard to sell products aimed at cannathletes.
“I wouldn’t sell a product making the claim that it improves performance or speeds recovery time, because you can’t say those kinds of things without stronger evidence experimentally,” Gerdeman said. “I know plenty of people – myself included – who have used modest amounts of cannabis for weight training or running, and found that it increased and improved the experience … but none of this is proven.”
Cannathletic entrepreneurs that Runner’s High author Hesse has interviewed have also had some difficulty in starting businesses, he said. He knows multiple people who tried and failed at opening a cannabis gym, he said, largely because of queasiness from insurance companies about covering a business that serves weed products to people using heavy exercise equipment.
Hesse said that while athlete-friendly edibles and strains seem to have a large opening in the marketplace, businesses that bring people together to exercise while smoking or ingesting weed might not be viable.
“While I think the market for [things like cannabis gyms] is extraordinary – the interest in it is huge – I think the pathway to doing it in an above ground legal, lucrative capacity is just not there yet,” Hesse said.
Lane of NOWAVE, however, thinks social consumption business models could work well for the cannathletic niche in New York: What about a cannabis bowling alley where people can smoke while playing? How about driving ranges where golfers can take hits between their shots?
“I’m really thinking a lot about ancillary businesses, and trainers who understand the medical side of cannabis,” Lane said. “That’s really where I see the benefit.”