Illicit Drugs in Sport

A Substances of Abuse category was introduced as part of the 2021 Prohibited List and 2021 World Anti-Doping Code (Code).


Sport Integrity Australia was one of multiple Signatories that made submissions to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to change the position as to illicit substances when the use was deemed Out-of-Competition and was unrelated to sport performance.

This consultation resulted in changes to the 2021 World Anti-Doping Code. A Substances of Abuse category was introduced as part of the 2021 Prohibited List and 2021 World Anti-Doping Code (Code).

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    The 2021 Code

    The 2021 Code permits greater flexibility in the sanctioning when an athlete tests positive In-Competition to one of the substances of abuse.

    While stimulants (like cocaine) can clearly have a performance enhancing effect when used In-Competition, often the quantity detected In-Competition strongly suggests that the use occurred Out-of-Competition in a social context with no effect on sport performance. 

    A major risk to athletes using stimulants such as cocaine, lies in the fact that it can provide a performance enhancing effect In-Competition.

    The change was not intended to encourage or condone illicit drug use.

    Substance of Abuse

    Substances in this ‘Substance of Abuse’ category are Cocaine, Heroin, MDMA and Cannabis. These substances have been included because they are known to be frequently abused outside of sport.

    Generally, the application of this Code provision would be determined by the analytical concentration/s reported by the WADA-accredited Laboratory.

    These Substances are prohibited In-Competition only. The category allows Anti-Doping Organisations to apply flexibility in sanctioning for athletes who test positive to a Substance of Abuse.

    In-Competition Period

    The In-Competition period commences at 11.59pm the night before a competition in which an athlete is scheduled to compete, through to the end of that competition and any sample collection process undertaken.

    International Federations may apply to WADA for permission to change their ‘In-Competition’ period if they have compelling justification. Athletes should check with their International Federation to ensure that their ‘In-Competition’ period aligns with the 2021 Code.

    Possible Sanction/s

    An athlete faces a ban of up to 4 years if a Substance of Abuse was deemed to be used In-Competition.

    As of 1 January 2021, if an Athlete tests positive to a 'Substance of Abuse’, then the Athlete’s period of Ineligibility may be reduced to three months if the Athlete is able to prove that the substance was ingested or Used Out-of-Competition and was unrelated to sport performance.

    The ban could be further reduced to one month if the athlete completes a Substance of Abuse treatment plan that is approved by the responsible Anti-Doping Organisation. The treatment plan adopted by Sport Integrity Australia includes the athlete being seen by a medical practitioner and the athlete completing a specific education program approved by Sport Integrity Australia. This treatment plan will be at the cost of the athlete.

    Concentration Levels

    Cannabis, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, and Heroin are all substances that are only reported as an Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) if they are present in a sample at (or above) concentrations set by WADA. If these substances are present below the set concentration, then this does not result in an AAF (i.e. a positive test).


    There are differences in Out-of-Competition tests conducted by Sport Integrity Australia and those tests conducted by a National Sporting Organisation under an illicit drugs policy.

    Sport Integrity Australia can only test for substances prohibited in-competition during the In-Competition period. In an Out-of-Competition environment, Sport Integrity Australia cannot test for recreational drugs but if an athlete uses an illicit substance Out-of-Competition, that athlete needs to be aware that these substances can stay in your system for a period of time, which might mean the substance could be detected in-competition.

    Regardless of when an athlete takes illicit drugs, if they are still in their system on game day they will be penalised.

    Why are illicit drugs banned in sport?

    All prohibited substances are added to the Prohibited List because they meet 2 of the 3 following criteria:

    • Use of the substance has the potential to enhance or enhances performance; 
    • Use of the substance represents an actual or potential health risk to the Athlete; and 
    • Use of the substance violates the spirit of sport.

    Performance enhancement

    Generally, an illicit substance (such as cocaine) produces an intense ‘rush’ with users feeling a sense of alertness,  arousal, and increased confidence.

    Health risks

    While the risk to sporting careers are very real, illicit drug users are also risking their health. All drug use contains a certain degree of risk, and the harms can be physical, psychological and social.

    Many users find illicit drugs addictive and may face a number of short and long-term health problems including an irregular heartbeat, chest pain, kidney failure, and seizures or stroke.

    Strict liability

    Under the World Anti-Doping Code’s ‘strict liability’ principle, the athlete is responsible for any substance found in their body, regardless of how it got there. The presence of a prohibited substance may result in an anti-doping rule violation, whether its use was intentional or unintentional. Our advice to athletes and support personnel is to be very careful when considering the use of a particular substance or product, as this may result in a sanction and/or other consequences for an athlete.

    Sport policies

    Sport Integrity Australia’s National Integrity Framework includes an Improper Use of Drugs and Medicine Policy to assist sports to deal with this integrity threat. This policy is separate from the principles of the World Anti-Doping Code and the National Anti-Doping (NAD) scheme.

    The Improper Use of Drugs and Medicine Policy is to provide a framework to:

    • ensure appropriately qualified personnel are appointed to provide science and medicine services to Athletes within Sport.
    • ensure injections are only administered to Athletes within Sport as part of appropriate medical treatment.
    • ensure Medications are used lawfully and appropriately.
    • ensure the Sport establishes a best practice approach and documented procedure for the use of Supplements, with a focus on safety and evidence-based use, given the risk that Supplements may contain substances included on the Prohibited List.
    • address and deter any unlawful distribution and Use of Illegal Drugs in connection with Sport.
    • aim to reduce the harm caused by Illegal Drugs to Relevant Persons and the broader community.

    Some sports already have Illicit Drug Policies in place and a handful of these (AFL, NRL) conduct testing for illicit drug use. This policy is separate from Sport Integrity Australia’s anti-doping testing program and is implemented by the sport.

    Online education

    The Illicit Drugs in Sport course is for any person involved in sport. It focuses on recreational illicit drug use, and how it can affect your health and your sporting career. 

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