Sha'Carri Richardson's Olympic drug ban: Why is marijuana a prohibited substance?

Sha’Carri Richardson, the 21-year-old sprinter expected to star at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, has been suspended and barred from running her signature race in Tokyo after testing positive for marijuana.

The drug has been decriminalized in most U.S. states, including in Oregon, where Richardson's positive test occurred. Many athletes use it for reasons both medicinal and recreational. The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL no longer suspend players for it.

And yet, “all natural and synthetic cannabinoids,” including marijuana, remain prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, the International Olympic Committee-affiliated body that regulates drug use in global sport.

What are the Olympic anti-doping rules on marijuana?

WADA deems THC, the primary psychoactive compound of marijuana, a “substance of abuse” on its 2021 prohibited list. All cannabis-based products except for cannabidiol, or CBD, are banned “in-competition.” That means that if THC is found in an athlete’s system on the day of an event, that athlete is subject to punishment.

Because Richardson's failed test occurred after she won the women's 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic Trials, it nullifies her first-place finish and disqualifies her from the event in Tokyo. USADA announced Friday that Richardson had accepted a one-month suspension that began June 28 and expires July 28, before track and field events begin in Tokyo. USA Track and Field could, therefore, select her for a relay team, but its rules require it to enter the top three finishers at trials in the 100. And Richardson is no longer one of them.

“The rules are clear," U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said, "but this is heartbreaking on many levels."

Richardson's one-month suspension is the minimum punishment for a positive marijuana test. The maximum is a years-long suspension, but WADA guidance allows for reduced bans “if the athlete can establish that any ingestion or use occurred out-of-competition and was unrelated to sport performance."

EUGENE, OREGON - JUNE 19: Sha'Carri Richardson competes in the Women's 100 Meter Semi-finals on day 2 of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 19, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates after winning the women's 100-meter semifinals at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

USADA said Friday that Richardson's suspension was reduced "because her use of cannabis occurred out of competition and was unrelated to sport performance, and because she successfully completed a counseling program regarding her use of cannabis."

Why is marijuana on the prohibited list?

Discussion over marijuana's inclusion on WADA's list of banned substances dates back two decades.

“People were worried about sport appearing to thumb its nose at criminal law," Dick Pound, the founder and first president of WADA, told Yahoo Sports on Friday.

So WADA lumped marijuana in with hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. And, said Pound, “it just sort of stayed there."

For a substance to make WADA’s prohibited list, it must satisfy at least two of the following three criteria, WADA says:

It represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete;

It has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance;

It violates the spirit of sport

A WADA spokeswoman, when asked, did not clarify which criteria are responsible for marijuana’s inclusion. A USADA “Marijuana FAQ” cites a 2011 paper co-authored by two WADA scientists, who claim that:

1. “Athletes who smoke cannabis or Spice in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.”

2. “Based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.”

3. “Use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world.”

Scientific and societal perceptions of marijuana have evolved since 2011, however. Many Americans would consider the third bullet point an outdated view. And many scientists would push back on the stance that marijuana both “poses a health risk to athletes” and “has the potential to enhance performance.”

A 2018 paper co-authored by Alan Vernec, WADA’s medical director, concluded that "there is no evidence for cannabis use as a performance-enhancing drug."

Oliver Catlin, the son of anti-doping pioneer Don Catlin and co-founder of the Banned Substances Control Group, told Yahoo Sports: “I am not aware of any potential for marijuana to be performance enhancing or to be used as a masking agent.”

Dennis Jensen, an associate professor of kinesiology and physical education at McGill University, told Yahoo Sports the limited evidence that exists suggests that, if anything, marijuana decreases athletic performance. While cautioning that further research is needed regarding the health risks of marijuana, Jensen said that what supports its inclusion on WADA's banned list is the potential cardiovascular harm to athletes who take it.

Based on its criteria, WADA's stance on marijuana might come down to whether its use violates the "spirit of sport." And that is highly subjective. A WADA spokesman admitted in 2019 that the prohibited list "evolves based on new scientific evidence, as well as, to a lesser degree, changes of use and cultural elements."

Catlin said: “Perhaps it is the stigma associated with marijuana, which remains illegal in many countries, that continues to have it be considered against the spirit of sport in the Olympic environment, which must have an international focus.

“As for sport in general,” Catlin later continued, though, “the attitudes are beginning to shift.”

Is marijuana still banned in U.S. sports leagues?

In recent years, as state after state passed laws decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana in some form, major U.S. sports leagues followed suit. The NFL no longer suspends players for weed. It no longer tests them throughout the offseason. Positive tests, in a limited window during the first two weeks of training camp, are treated on a case-by-case basis.

"Certainly, we see that society is changing its views,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said last year after the ratification of a new CBA, which included the revamped marijuana policy. “But views only change because key facts become more and more obvious to the people who make policy.”

The NHL’s policy is similar. MLB, in 2019, removed cannabis from its “drugs of abuse” list. The NBA has not permanently altered its policy, which stipulates fines and then suspensions for repeat offenders. But Adam Silver admitted to Yahoo Sports in 2019 that, when it came to weed, “maybe we're behind the times in our program.”

Then, last summer, the NBA temporarily ceased random marijuana testing when it resumed its 2019-20 season in Orlando. It has not resumed the program since. In announcing the continued suspension of it last December, NBA spokesman Mike Bass said that the league had agreed with its players’ association to “focus our random testing program on performance-enhancing products and drugs of abuse.”

How has WADA’s policy evolved?

While the marijuana policy for Olympic sports is far more stringent than the NBA’s or the NFL’s, WADA has relaxed its rules over the past decade.

In 2013, WADA sought to strike a compromise that would satisfy those who argued cannabis should be removed from its list of banned substances and those who contended that it should remain prohibited. The international anti-doping organization increased the threshold for a positive test tenfold, decreasing the chances of a recreational or occasional user getting detected and facing punishment.

WADA also removed CBD from its list of banned substances in 2018, though for athletes, using CBD products is still a substantial risk. Because it’s nearly impossible to extract only CBD oil from the cannabis plant, USADA warns athletes they should assume that CBD products also contain prohibited substances.

The more lenient rules have decreased the number of positive tests, but Richardson is far from alone in running afoul of WADA’s marijuana rules. Americans who served cannabis-related suspensions in the past three years include weightlifters and triathletes, MMA fighters and skateboarders, freestyle skiers and pole vaulters.

Richardson isn’t even the only American sprinter whose 2021 season was interrupted by a positive marijuana test. Kahmari Montgomery, who specializes in the 400 meters, accepted a one-month suspension early last month.

Athletes have pushed WADA to change

In May 2019, a nonprofit representing athletes from 28 sports released an open letter calling on WADA to remove marijuana from its list of banned substances. Mike Tyson, Ricky Williams, Jake Plummer and Floyd Landis are among the members of Athletes For Care, which advocates for research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis.

“We have found an improved quality of life through cannabis and natural cannabinoids, including significant pain relief, therapeutic, and wellness benefits,” the letter reads. It then goes on to say that WADA “owes it to athletes to allow full access to this gentle but effective plant medicine.”

The outcry from athletes since then has only grown louder as more states have decriminalized marijuana. Two years ago, golfer Robert Garrigus lashed out at the PGA Tour over its marijuana policy after serving a three-month suspension because of a failed drug test.

“The fact that it is socially unacceptable for cannabis and CBD right now blows my mind,” Garrigus told Golfweek. "It’s OK to take Oxycontin and black out and run into a bunch of people, but you can’t take CBD and THC without someone looking at you funny. It makes no sense.”

‘A drug that seems to be more about image management’

Why does marijuana remain on WADA’s prohibited substance list if it doesn’t appear to enhance performance beyond limiting pain and reducing anxiety? Pound, the WADA founder, and Catlin, the American anti-doping expert, argue that it shouldn’t be.

Catlin estimates the cash-strapped anti-doping industry squanders $1.3 million per year on marijuana-related cases.

“I would rather see that money spent on pursuing doping agents that can impact performance than on a drug that seems to be more about image management,” Catlin said.

The circumstances of Richardson’s case make her potential punishment especially harsh. The confident, charismatic sprinter had been hailed as a medal favorite in Tokyo and a potential breakout star. Her showdown with Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in the 100 meters final would be track and field’s most anticipated race of the Olympics.

Now that matchup is in doubt, an outcome that’s bad not only for Richardson but also for the sport.

Were Pound still active in WADA, he says he would push to remove marijuana from the banned list over the next five-to-10 years.

Said Pound: “We're in the business of preventing performance enhancement in sport, not getting involved in what may be medical conditions that really don't have anything to do with sport.”

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