A decision by four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Lance Mackey to dose his team with a pain-relieving agent with possible mood-enhancing benefits is stirring a lively debate within the small world of sled dog sports.
CBD, the acronym for cannabidiol, is not specifically banned by Iditarod anti-doping rules, but the drug manual does say this:
“Performance Altering Drugs (Class I) are those which attempt to directly affect the athletic performance of a dog. These include stimulants, depressants (tranquilizers), narcotics, pain medications, mood enhancers and anabolic steroids, which are prohibited substances.”
Such drugs are banned.
Little research has been done on the affects of CBD on canines, but a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science found a “significant decrease in pain and increase in activity with CBD oil. Veterinary assessment showed decreased pain during CBD treatment.”
If Mackey is administering a dose of CBD that relieves pain, the drug would be something like tramadol, the synthetic opioid that got fellow four-time Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey in so much trouble after the 2016 race. Tramadol is considered a mild pain reliever in dogs.
Seavey was the first Iditarod musher to ever be publicly outed as a doper although the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) later changed its mind and said it believed a Seavey claim his team must have been sabotaged by someone.
No suspect has ever been identified, and Seavey has yet to return to the race.
In his case, drug testers were able to determine from urine samples that his dogs had been given tramadol and roughly how much. In Mackey’s case, nobody really knows what he is giving his dogs.
The CBD tincture in question is supplied by The High Expedition, a Talkeetna-based company that provides no information on the CBD concentration in its “Pet Tincture…Approved by Lance Mackey.”
A June 2019 story in the Alaska Cannabist provided slightly more detail. It said Joe McAneney, who owns a cannabis dispensary in Talkeetna, approached Mackey with a CBD business idea, and two began work on “a CBD tincture for dogs.
“It’s a natural product that can give users feelings of calm and relaxation and ease aches and pains but is not psychoactive.”
CBD is one of more than 100 chemical compounds found in marijuana plants. It is not the chemical that induces a high; that chemical is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
Whether Mackey’s dogs are actually getting any of these benefits out of CBD would, of course, depend on how much CBD he is dosing them with, and that is an unknown.
Some tinctures are high on alcohol and low on CBD and others the opposite.
“Tinctures are produced by steeping cannabis flowers or isolates in a high-proof grain alcohol, then applying low heat for a significant span of time,” says Leafly, a website dedicated to covering cannabis. “This allows the active compounds in cannabis to infuse into the neutral spirit, much of which is then boiled off. The result is a potent liquid that delivers the effects of the cannabinoid molecules without any smoking or other form of combustion.”
Such concentrated forms of CBD, the website says, exhibit “analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. These properties make it useful in the treatment of both acute pain—like muscle pulls—and chronic conditions such as arthritis.”
Mackey himself made the drug sound almost magical in the Alaska Cannabist story. He reported administering the CBD, leaving his kennel and returning to find the health of nine ailing dogs visibly improved.
“I saw a dog I didn’t expect to see on my return because of age and ailments come running down to the road through the dog yard,” he said. “It made me teary-eyed proud to be witnessing something so positive. It should have been available years ago.”
Mackey was similarly effusive in the ADN story, telling a reporter to “watch here in about an hour. I’ll come here and feed them, and they’ll stand up and start screaming. Their recovery time is impressive.”
Mackey’s best finish in his last five Iditarods is 19th. He finished 26th last year. He has so far this year appeared in contention for a top-10 finish.
Mackey said Iditarod chief veterinarian, Stuart Nelson asked him not to use CBD during the race, but Mackey decided to use it anyway. Nelson told the newspaper he didn’t want to talk about it.
Nelson was on the trail Thursday and could not be reached. Since the Seavey affair, his behavior toward doping issues has been avoidance. He said nothing when the Iditarod decided to end its association with anti-doping expert Morrie Craig, a friend of Nelson’s.
Craig was never replaced. Nelson took over supervision of the anti-doping program. The longtime Alaska field coordinator for the program, a volunteer, subsequently quit.
On Facebook Thursday, she posted her view that “it doesn’t matter whether (CBD) is legal or not. The ITC has dismantled the drug testing program. Certain people didn’t like it and they got what they wanted, and now what is there is only window dressing.”
The rest of the mushing community seems fairly split on Mackey and CBD.
Mackey has long cultivated an outlaw image that has made him hugely popular in the 49th state. There are some who now think he is being persecuted by any discussion of his teams’ use of CBD.
A few have even attacked the newspaper for reporting on a product Mackey has in the past actively promoted.
Mackey critics on the other hand contend that even if he didn’t break the letter of the rules, he has violated the spirit of rules that seek to level the playing field by banning performance-enhancing substances.
Which CBD might or might not be.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still wrestling with how to handle this issue. CBD is in something of a legal limbo, classified as a drug for some purposes, illegal for sale as a dietary supplement, but not otherwise restricted.
- The FDA has approved only one CBD product, a prescription drug product to treat two rare, severe forms of epilepsy.
- It is currently illegal to market CBD by adding it to a food or labeling it as a dietary supplement.
- The FDA has seen only limited data about CBD safety and these data point to real risks that need to be considered before taking CBD for any reason.
- Some CBD products are being marketed with unproven medical claims and are of unknown quality.
Veterinarians have also raised questions about the safety of the drug.
In a 2018 study in the Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association titled “A Report of Adverse Effects Associated With the Administration of Cannabidiol in Healthy Dogs,” a team of research veterinarians reported the drug was well tolerated by the dogs tested, but “the potential for long-term liver toxicity was not evaluated in this study. The observation of ALP (alkaline phosphatase enzyme) elevations warrants serial monitoring of liver enzymes.”
A study of mice given high doses of the drug showed liver damage, but Healthline noted the dosages were far higher than humans would ever take.
“There’s no federal regulation for many CBD products sold OTC, so you may be taking more or less of the substance than is advertised on a product.
“Furthermore, a recent independent analysis performed by ConsumerLab.com revealed that CBD doses in commercially-available products ranged from as little as 2.2 mg to as much as 22.3 mg.”
Amidst this confusion, a goodly number of Idit-a-fans contend its nobody’s business but Mackey’s what his dog team is given.
“Lance knows what is best for his dogs” seemed to sum up the view of many on social media.