In February 2008—ten years ago this past winter—Thomas Vanderham, a mainstay in freeride mountain biking, crashed badly in Utah while filming for The Collective's third movie, “Seasons.” With most footage bagged for the spring release that year, his crew was trying to add on in the ninth hour. The crash put a stop to Vanderham's expanded part—there wasn't enough footage from the trip to put it in the film—and according to his doctors, it nearly put a stop to his riding, too.
His injuries were numerous and vicious, nearly losing him the ability to use his hand. His tricep was separated from his arm, and there were compound fractures that needed to be dealt with surgically. To help with his recovery, his doctor prescribed Percocet, an opiate. Along with the script came a heavy warning: stop taking these as soon as you can.
Although prescribed enough for a month, Vanderham only needed the powerful painkillers for a week before he felt he could manage the pain without them. "It was a wakeup call," he said. "As soon as I stopped taking them, I noticed the side effects. Trouble sleeping, hot and cold spells–I struggled without them. It was scary, and I'd only taken them for a week. This injury and others since have given me a moderate amount of experience with opioids—enough to have learned that I try to avoid taking them whenever possible."
Vanderham treated his recovery like a full-time job. His physiotherapist explained that basically, he had a new arm, and he would need to rebuild all the pathways from its new shape and size to his brain. In three months, Vanderham was able to get back on a road bike. In an incredible six months, he was competing at the Redbull Rampage.
Forced time off the bike is a nuisance for your average rider. For pros, it's simply not acceptable. Whether you case your local step up, or set your saddle up too high, if you're on the pain train, proper, swift recovery is crucial. But when opioids get involved—as they should, at the appropriate time and place—sometimes recovering from recovery is an unexpected challenge. "Coming down," withdrawal, anxiety, poor sleep, irritability, and depression are just some of the side effects of prolonged use.
That's why the World Anti-Doping Organization's (WADA) decision to remove cannabidiol (CBD) from its Prohibited Substances List was monumental, and not just for pro riders. CBD helps kids with epilepsy, cancer patients dealing with chemotherapy side effects, and health-conscious people trying to maintain a baseline of wellness. "I can't say that I have done scientific research on CBD, but I do see its positive effects in my chemotherapy patients," said Dr. Samuel Klempner, director of precision medicine and GI oncology at The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Los Angeles. "I have patients who feel that CBD helps them improve appetite, reduce nausea and cancer-related pain, and tolerate intensive therapies better. Many patients report it helps with anxiety and better rest—for these reasons, if a patient asks about using CBD, I fully support it after reviewing possible interactions with their therapy. Being able to stay with a course of treatment for more time is important to optimize the chances for benefit."
CBD has long been guilty by association with its cannabis cousin, marijuana. Now, it's breaking away from its past and WADA's recognition of its harmless benefits helps raise awareness for athletes of all levels and disciplines. Already, athletes are starting to embrace these benefits. Troupe Racing in Southern California is an 11-year-old privateer team who just picked up a new sponsor, Seven Points CBD. "Seven Points is a local company using high quality, Colorado produced, organic full-spectrum hemp. I learned a little about it through a friend, tried it, and found I had really good results for my chronic back pain and my sleep problems—it effectively replaced a melatonin and herbal regime I was fiddling with, and it was easier, more effective, and has no side effects." said Tim VanGilder, Troupe's team manager. "The whole team started trying it, and the feeling of reducing some inflammation and better rest has been the main reason we all use it now. One of our team members is even giving it to their dog!"
So what is CBD? What are these benefits?
First let's clear up a few myths. It's not 'the male weed.' Hemp can't get you high. And it is definitely not marijuana. In fact, hemp is only one part of the same genetic family as marijuana (weed) and hops (beer)—hemp is like the straight-edged brother.
According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, there are no adverse health outcomes but rather several medical applications for cannabidiol, a.k.a. CBD. It is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, and you can see the effectiveness of its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and neuroprotectant properties in thousands of clinical trials published on pubmed.gov. In a world where opioid addiction is a real threat, CBD can help with the negative side effects of opioids, and even replace certain types of anxiety and pain management medications. Despite the WADA ruling and the well-established benefits, however, some athletes remain leery of CBD.
In fact—even though it is fully legal to use—a number of riders we contacted for this article preferred not to comment on the topic at all. Citing potential issues with sponsors and the stigma surrounding THC (even though they understand that CBD is legal and effective) several opted out of discussing the issue entirely. And who could blame them; it has only been weeks since a positive CBD test wouldn't get your sample flagged. WADA's list of banned substances not only informs competition drug testing, but also underpins the contracts of many athletes who do not compete.
John David Belfontaine, the CEO of the nutraceutical company Phivida has been on the forefront of the discussion around CBD for a number of years, and has presented to state legislatures, investors and families about the difference between THC and CBD. His first-hand experience and eye-witnessing of others' have made him a passionate champion for U.S. hemp production.
"There is a rich hemp history in the United States—the Declaration of Independence is written on hemp paper. George Washington was a hemp farmer. We're seeing a return to tradition in a sense," says Belfontaine. "Starting with the 2014 Farm Act, hemp and CBD is federally legal. Hemp is once again grown in the U.S. for American families. Marijuana gets you high. Hemp gets you healthy."
Hemp's health benefits are well-documented for both physical and mental health. That's where Athletes for Care comes in. Athletes for Care is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating a community where athletes can find support, opportunity and purpose in life after a career in sports. They advocate for responsible solutions to important health issues impacting millions of people, athletes and non-athletes alike, such as opioid addiction, chronic pain and poor mental health.
The organization counts Floyd Landis among its spokespeople. After being stripped of his victory from the 2006 Tour de France and subsequent ban from professional cycling, Landis turned to opioids.
"These circumstances may seem unique to me, but you don't have to be an athlete to suffer from chronic pain or depression," says Landis. "Doctors I've worked with have been quick to prescribe addictive opioids or drugs that in the long term cause more harm than good. I knew there had to be a better way other than falling into a pill bottle and never emerging."
After breaking his addiction, Landis started his own company, Floyd's of Leadville, which sells CBD-based soft gels, tinctures, and creams. Like Phivida, Seven Points CBD, and other companies emerging in the CBD market, Floyd's is betting that change is coming very quickly.
Given what we know about CBD, that's really good news for athletes, families and patients alike.