Disqualified for coping

Sha’Carri Richardson’s heartbreaking disqualification from the 2021 Olympics raises the question: Is it time to reassess the Olympics’ cannabis policy?

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MIAMI, USA - AUGUST 15, 2019: An Olympic flag waves under the floodlights of a red athletics track.
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When the USA Track & Field (USATF) released the Olympic roster on July 6, people around the country were equally frustrated and disappointed to see that Sha’Carri Richardson was not listed as a competitor. 

It was the official and final word from the national team: Richardson, a USATF favorite, wouldn’t be competing in the Tokyo games. She’d tested positive for THC, nullifying her June 19 win at the Eugene, Oregon, Olympic trials, and disqualifying her from both the 4×100-meter relay and the 100-meter individual race. The situation has sparked a heated conversation among the public, Olympic officials and lawmakers about whether or not the Olympic rules on cannabis need reevaluation. 

Richardson, the fiery-haired 21-year-old sprinter, was favored to compete for gold at the 2021 games. But between the very recent death of her biological mother, and the incredible pressure of training for the Olympic trials, Richardson says she chose to self-medicate and cope with emotional stress with cannabis, which is legal in Oregon. On NBC’s Today show Richardson said, “I know I can’t hide myself, so in some type of way, I was trying to hide my pain.”

Richardson is far from the first American Olympic athlete to run into trouble with cannabis. Famously, Michael Phelps, the 23-time-gold-medalist swimmer, was disciplined in 2009 and lost sponsorships after he was photographed smoking from a cannabis pipe. However, 12 years later the conversation around Olympic cannabis controversies seems to have taken on a strikingly different tone.   

On July 2, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamie Raskin sent a co-authored letter to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), defending Richardson and urging the agency to make an exception for her case.  

“We urge you to reconsider the policies that led to this and other suspensions for recreational marijuana use, and to reconsider Ms. Richardson’s suspension,” the lawmakers wrote. “Please strike a blow for civil liberties and civil rights by reversing this course you are on.”

The USADA defend its decision to suspend Richardson, but also indicated a new willingness to reconsider some of the cannabis policies that led to her disqualification. 

“USADA has consistently put forward recommendations that the rules addressing cannabis and cannabinoids should be more flexible and fair. … Many of the suggestions supported by USADA have been incorporated into the rules,” the organization wrote in its response to Ocasio-Cortez and Raskin. “USADA would, however, still go even further in mitigating the harsh consequences of a positive marijuana case in a situation like Ms. Richardson’s.”

However, the USADA added, “there is no longer any legal process to challenge [Richardson’s disqualification] or to reverse it.”

According to research from the University of Colorado published in Frontiers of Public Health, eight out of 10 cannabis users partake either just before or after working out. Athletes say cannabis use prior to exercise relaxes them, allows them to enjoy work-outs more and improves their recovery afterward similarly to Advil or Tylenol. 

But there simply isn’t research indicating that THC is actually “performance enhancing,” CU’s Angela Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, told CU Boulder Today. When it comes to improving a person’s speed, power or strength (especially days after consumption), there’s no evidence that cannabis has any kind of notable effect. One study she points to actually showed decreased power and strength among some athletes high on THC, with little-to-no change in performance for others. 

What there is growing evidence to support, however, is that cannabis can greatly help people treat depression, anxiety, sleep problems and pain. Which is what Richardson claims to have been using cannabis for in the first place: to manage her stress levels and anxiety, and to cope with the loss of her mother. 

“I’m human,” Richardson tweeted on July 1, when the announcement of her failed drug test was made. 

Then, on July 3 she wrote, “I’m sorry, I can’t be y’all Olympic Champ this year but I promise I’ll be your World Champ next year.”

The leaders of the USADA called Richardson’s disqualification “heartbreaking.” The World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) stated that its “rules concerning marijuana must change.” Even Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, suggested that the rules need to be reevaluated. 

Until they are, however, there’s nothing to be done for Richardson except to wait for her triumphant return. 

As President Joe Biden remarked on the situation, “Rules are the rules. And everyone knows what the rules were going in. Whether they should remain that way is a different issue. But the rules are rules, and I was very proud of the way she responded.”