In 10.86 seconds, Sha’Carri Richardson smoked the eight other women competing in the 100-meter final of the U.S. Olympic Trials, securing her spot on the Olympic team.
With her eye-catching tattoos, lashes and nails and a personality as bright as her trademark orange hair, Richardson became the woman to watch on the track. However, in the days following her breakout performance, she accepted a one-month suspension that disqualified her results at the trials and took her out of the Olympics — all because she smoked cannabis to cope with the death of her mother.
Last Friday on NBC’s “Today” show, the track star took responsibility for her actions, explaining that she is disappointed in herself and apologizing to her fans, family and sponsors.
Richardson is hardly the first athlete to have used marijuana during her career and lately, sports organizations have loosened their grips on attitudes related to the drug. A little Internet digging can unearth the surprisingly long list of well-known professional athletes that are users. The NFL limited testing and minimized consequences, the NBA suspended random cannabis testing for the 2020-21 season, the UFC stopped penalizing athletes for recreational marijuana use and the MLB removed marijuana from its list of banned substances (though players will still be condemned if they arrive at the field stoned).
As such, many have come to the defense of the 5’1” superstar athlete. Others assert that Richardson knowingly broke the anti-doping rules and therefore should be punished accordingly.
Since the rules are the centerpiece of the argument against Richardson’s innocence, they merit a closer examination.
According to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA, for something to be on the prohibited list, it must meet two of the three inclusion criteria: a) it poses a health risk to athletes b) it has the potential to enhance performance and c) it violates the spirit of sport. Evidently, the USADA maintains that marijuana meets the criteria.
Cannabis fits criterion A because the notorious effects of being high can alter the perception of risk, coordination, movement and time estimation, potentially leading to poor decisions, accidents or injuries. Hypotension, dizziness, disorientation and paranoia can also occur in individuals that have THC in their systems.
Looking at criterion B, cannabidiol, or CBD, and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, have the potential to improve oxygenation to tissues, decreasing muscle spasms, anxiety, fear, depression and tension while promoting relaxation and better sleep. Cannabis also increases appetite, allowing increased caloric intake and body mass — a bonus in particular sports.
As for criterion C, the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, maintains that marjuana use is inconsistent with its values, including (but not limited to) honesty, courage, community, solidarity and respect for laws, self and other participants. Athletes are also role models for young people around the world and the promotion of performance-enhancing drugs would certainly violate the spirit of sport.
Currently, the 2021 WADA classifies THC as a “Substance of Abuse.” Athletes who test positive for a Substance of Abuse will receive a three-month sanction if usage occurred out of competition and was unrelated to sport performance. However, if the athlete completes a treatment program approved by USADA, the sanction can be reduced to one month (such is the case for Richardson).
Marijuana advocates believe that while rules may be in place, the generalization of the code of conduct leaves rules up for interpretation.
When imagining a doped-up athlete, one may think of steroids, injections or maybe illegal protein powder. This “classic” doping is a long-term process, compared to the short-term high of cannabis.
The medicinal uses of cannabis are also frequently forgotten. It can be effectively used to treat both physical and mental pains. Trainers can use marijuana to heal athletes, like any other drug.
Marijuana, like any other pharmaceutical drug, should be used for treatment, and it is the users’ own responsibility not to abuse the therapeutic benefits and become dependent. So long as it is used outside of the sport in a state that has legalized cannabis use (recreationally or medically), the spirit of sport is objectively not being violated.
On July 27, Richardson’s ban will be lifted and the United States track team will race in Tokyo without its brightest star. Between that time and now, meaningful conversations surrounding the endorsement or condemnation of weed are necessary in this ever-evolving world of ours. For now, athletes and fans alike will continue to watch the long awaited Olympic games, anxious for their team to win.
Contact Kiana Thelma Devera at [email protected].