UKAD Chairman, Trevor Pearce, urges athletes using recreational drugs to consider the risks

The new World Anti-Doping Code (the Code), which came into force on 1 January this year, included changes to how anti-doping deals with athletes who are caught using recreational drugs.  

The debate about the role of anti-doping organisations like UKAD in dealing with these cases has been debated for years. Should we, the anti-doping community, be policing athletes’ drug use of substances such as cocaine in instances where they have no performance enhancing effects? 

The drugs, referred to in the Code as Substances of Abuse, are well known for their illegal use in society and include cocaine, diamorphine (heroin), MDMA (also known as ecstasy) and THC (a psychoactive compound in cannabis). There is no doubt about their dangers and criminality. 

An analytical finding for the presence of Substances of Abuse, in a context deemed as out-of-competition and unrelated to sports performance, will now result in a three-month ban from sport. This sanction can be further reduced to one month, only if the athlete completes an approved Substances of Abuse treatment programme - as determined by the newly developed policy.  

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is the international rules-based regulator of doping in sport. UKAD, as the UK’s national anti-doping organisation, must ensure compliance with the Code. We have been working on the implications of these changes for some time. You can find more details about the new procedures here

However, it is important to put these changes into context. A three-month ban will only apply where it can be proved that the substance was taken out-of-competition. If an athlete can’t prove that the drug use was out-of-competition and unrelated to sports performance, they may receive up to a four-year ban. 

Whilst sanctions have changed somewhat, athletes must consider more broadly the risks they face when taking these substances. So, let me pose these questions to any athlete opting to do so: 

  • Why would you want to ignore the responsibilities you have in terms of strict liability? 

  • Can you be sure that these drugs aren’t contaminated with a substance that could lead to another analytical finding for a prohibited substance? 

  • Are you compromising yourself by committing a criminal offence? Is this not considered as evidence of possession of a controlled substance? 

  • If you work in a regulated sector or industry, are you considering the implications on you if you are found to have taken a recreational drug? 

  • How would a ban from sport, even if it is three months, impact on your selection, sponsorship, reputation or recognition in your sport? 

  • Importantly, what effects could drug use have on your physical and psychological well-being? 

This is an issue of your health and welfare, which is why anti-doping is choosing to put the well-being of athletes first. With the new rules that are now being enforced, athletes can get the necessary help they need to deal with possible issues they may face such as drug addiction and misuse.  

In the last three years, 29% of the anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) published were related to Substances of Abuse, where two and four-year bans were given to athletes. However, we want to focus our efforts on catching and banning those who aim to cheat in sport instead of those making questionable decisions in their spare time.  

So, please, even though bans for out-of-competition use of recreational substances have changed from two years to three months, consider the wider implications of taking them. A ban is still valuable time away from sport regardless of the length. However, it is not just about sport, it is about your health and welfare too. If you do take recreational drugs, think about your actions and ask yourself if you need help dealing with the issues arising from this use. Don’t wait for an analytical finding, speak to your GP or refer to NHS online services for support