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Sports

Sha’Carri Richardson: The hope to change the World Anti-Doping Policy on pot

| Thursday, September 30, 2021

With her bright orange hair flying behind her and her freshly done nails pointing at the time, Sha’Carri Richardson finished the 100-meter dash at a remarkable time of 10.72 seconds. At the time, Sha’Carri was considered America’s best chance for the gold medal in Japan. She was a quick success. Her spunky personality quickly led to her becoming an internet sensation.

However, only a few days after this extraordinary win, news spread across the country that she would no longer be allowed to travel to Japan to race. The culprit: marijuana.

After the news of the death of her biological mother, Sha’Carri smoked with some friends. While to a majority of Americans, smoking weed is nothing out of the ordinary, for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) this meant that Richardson would no longer be able to compete in Japan.

When this news broke, thousands of people across the country fought back. To many, marijuana — which was legal in the state of Washington in which Richardson smoked — is not considered an enhancement drug. After only hours of the news being released, petitions were being created and signed to change the U.S. Anti-Doping Agencies ruling on the matter. However, when the Tokyo Olympics came, Sha’Carri was at home watching them on her T.V.

In 2004, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) created three criteria for what would be considered an illegal substance: it harms the health of the athlete, it is a performance enhancer or it is against the spirit of the sport. Within that criteria, the reason that marijuana is considered illegal is that it is a performance-enhancing drug. Marijuana is put up against steroids, hormone and metabolic modulators, and bronchodilators (which relax smooth-muscle construction thus opening airways of the lungs) as a performance enhancer. To be considered a banned drug by the WADA and ICO, a drug must meet two out of the three criteria. This is quite frankly, as many people have put it, laughable. In fact, when this decision was originally made, late star Robin Williams said that “When you are stoned, you’re lucky if you can find your own goddamn feet. The only way it’s a performance-enhancing drug is if there’s a big [obscenity] Hershey bar at the end of the run.”  

Comedians are not the only ones to make comments on the overstatement of the powers of marijuana. Sports Attorney Joseph M. Hanna released a statement claiming that “It’s not a steroid. It’s not a growth hormone. It’s nothing to make you run faster, jump faster, throw faster — furthest thing from that… It has more of an opportunity to slow you down than to speed you up.” Although Hanna is not representing Richardson, he has worked on cannabis cases in the past. 

In 2011, WADA cited an Anti-Doping article titled “Cannabis in Sports” to defend their claim. Since it was released, many individuals have fought back against it.

While there are claims in the article that said marijuana slightly increases the performance of some athletes, there are just as many points in the article in which athletes had a reduction in endurance after consuming marijuana. Since the release of this article, there have been countless other articles countering the original studies finding; one of which being co-written by IOC member Dr. Alan Vernec.

However, this is not the only criteria that cannabis apparently meets. According to WADA, marijuana is also harmful to athletes. In the early 2000s, marijuana was associated with a stigma. Over the past two decades, this has certainly decreased. In addition, since 2004, there has been significantly more data around recreational marijuana usage and the impacts it has on user’s health. Marijuana has never been linked to any form of overdose while overconsumption of alcohol can kill you within minutes. It is important to note that there are significantly more relaxed rules associated with alcohol than are associated with marijuana. In addition, recreational cannabis use has been shown to have an increased risk of respiratory symptoms and frequent chronic bronchitis episodes. Yet again, this is not even comparable to the effects of alcohol. 

In addition to marijuana not necessarily meeting any of the criteria, many Olympic athletes have been open about using it. In 2008, at the height of his fame, Michael Phelps was pictured smoking pot. He did test positive for THC, which led to a three-month suspension as well. The main difference was timing. Phelps missed out on certain races, but nothing that would have affected his Olympic run. At the time, marijuana was not legal in any state.

It always takes a first to make a change. Michael Phelps was not the individual to do that. Sha’Carri Richardson was considered one of the fastest women in the world, and she was for sure going to the Olympics. At the time of his photograph, Phelps had already competed, he did not lose out on anything. For the IOC and the WADA to shift, there needs to be more uproar. Recreational marijuana is legal in a majority of the 50 states, and this sentiment is shifting globally as well. Canada has already made it legal for nationwide recreational use and we will see others follow.

It is time for the IOC and WADA to change their policy. Yes, Sha’Carri Richardson knew the rules when she decided to indulge in smoking. But the rules are antiquated and are doing nothing but harming athletes who have worked their entire lives to get to this moment.

Professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder Angela Bryan put it nicely, saying “[Richardson] was doing something legal in the state that she was in for reasons that, frankly, seemed perfectly understandable — to deny her the chance to compete at the highest level just seem to me, absolutely ridiculous.”

It is time for a change in policy. And while Sha’Carri Richardson was unable to compete under the U.S. flag, hopefully, she will be the push the IOC and WADA need.

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