Sha’Carri Richardson, gold medalist in the United States Olympic Trials 100-meter race, will not be able to participate in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics after she tested positive for marijuana. Richardson took full responsibility for her actions and will now have to wait to compete at the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s most recent decision to suspend Richardson has sparked massive debate surrounding the Olympics policy on marijuana use by athletes. The USADA enforces the rules set by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which has included marijuana on its list of banned substances since 1998. What are the chances that this policy will be changed?
Globally, most countries have stringent policies as it relates to marijuana, making it illegal for recreational use with a harsh punishment for offenders. The WADA included marijuana on its list of banned substances after increased pressure from the U.S. government to create an anti-drug program. This change was quickly made after Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati won a gold medal in the 1998 Olympics, then tested positive for marijuana. He initially had the gold medal stripped but was reinstated because the substance was not yet prohibited by the WADA. The founder and first president of the WADA admits that marijuana was added to the list because it was viewed as a hard drug, such as cocaine and heroin, and there were fears about the sport turning a blind eye to criminal law. Additionally, there have been questions about whether it is a performance-enhancing drug.
Since the controversy, the USADA has called for the WADA to implement fair rules for athletes regarding the use of marijuana, such as changing the testing process. The proposed new testing process would provide more accurate results to differentiate between those athletes who have used marijuana on the day of the competition versus those who have used it days before the competition. However, the WADA contends that as of this year the USADA has insisted marijuana remain on its list of banned substances.
Interestingly, the WADA Code specifically bans marijuana for in-competition use only and allows athletes to legally use marijuana outside of competition. Richardson used marijuana while in Oregon, where its use is legal, days before the Olympic Trials. Although this was done outside of competition, Richardson tested positive on the day of the race which is a WADA Code violation.
The USADA and the WADA appear to be pointing fingers at each other for this result, but the truth is that although the USADA may not have a direct vote in the rules set by the WADA, it seems to have plenty of input that is heavily considered before the implementation of new rules. The WADA has acknowledged that more scientific data is provided by representatives from the U.S. than from any other nation in the world. If the USADA were to advocate in full support of removing marijuana from the list, the WADA may potentially adjust the code. However, the WADA members from other countries where the regulations remain strict could still insist that the ban on marijuana remain.
Statistics show that an overwhelming 91% of Americans believe that marijuana should be legalized for either medicinal or recreational use. With many states decriminalizing marijuana, some sports organizations have also changed the rules for their players. For example, Major League Baseball has completely removed marijuana from its list of banned substances. The NBA has suspended random drug testing, and UFC will no longer penalize athletes for marijuana use unless it is specifically linked to performance enhancement. Although there is a shift in decriminalizing marijuana in the U.S., there may be hesitation to completely remove cannabis from the list of banned substances.
The international rule to ban cannabis is supported by countries around the globe due mainly to the stigma surrounding marijuana for recreational use. This leaves one to wonder if the WADA’s policies will evolve and if cannabis will ever be removed from that list. To do so, the WADA would have to determine that marijuana is not a hard drug comparable to cocaine or heroin and that it is not a performance enhancement drug. Whether there is concrete link between marijuana and performance enhancement remains a controversy.
Whether you agree or disagree with the suspension of Sha’Carri Richardson, this debate about the use of cannabis by athletes for medicinal and/or recreational purposes is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.