In 2022, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is scheduled to consider a change to one of their most controversial policies: the international ban on cannabis use.
This summer, U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from the Olympics after testing positive for THC. The move received significant pushback.
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The Case of Sha’Carri Richardson
Sha’Carri Richardson, an Olympic athlete from Oregon, was denied entry to the Tokyo Olympics when her THC test came back positive. The track star spoke about the incident in an interview, explaining that she had recently learned about the death of her biological mother from a reporter in a separate interview. She used marijuana as part of her healing process — a move that would come back to haunt her on her way to Tokyo.
The blowback against her dismissal was loud and high profile. Representatives Jamie Raskin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez both pointed out that cannabis does not enhance athletic performance and that it is legal in Richardson’s home state of Oregon. President Biden also weighed in, stating that “rules are rules,” but casted some uncertainty on whether those rules should remain in effect.
Under fire for the move. WADA has recently stated in a press release that it will reexamine the scientific evidence around marijuana to determine whether future policy changes will occur. The organization’s executive committee stated it received “requests from a number of stakeholders,” which went unnamed but includes a large number of athletic leagues.
At any rate, the current ban on cannabis will remain in effect through 2022 as the committee reviews the science.
The first president of WADA weighed in on the subject in an interview, saying he is “always in favor of a scientific review of any substance that is on the Prohibited List so that we can be acting on the basis of established facts, both as to the effects of the substance (if any) and the appropriate range of sanctions (if any).”
The current ban appears to be a relic of the 1990s, when the United States in particular was adamant about marijuana being on the list. In fact, WADA’s response to Representatives Raskin and Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that the United States was a major backer of marijuana being on the list of banned substances in international athletics.
Response From Richardson and Others
Richardson’s response to the ordeal has been markedly positive. The track star states that, if her own suspension is the spark that leads to an international policy change, she would feel “blessed.”
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) appears to be fully in support of Richardson, or at least sympathetic to her plight. The agency stated that the rules around marijuana must change, an opinion echoed by the White House press secretary. A USADA representative also stated in July that the organization supports “liberalization” of the bans as they stand currently and that it is “heartbroken” over the case of Richardson.
The national U.S. governing body for track and field, USA Track & Field, agreed with the USADA’s consensus in saying that punishments for cannabis use by athletes should be reevaluated.
Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen pointed out in July that alcohol use is tolerated yet marijuana use is not, a particular point of hypocrisy. He also joked that the only area in which cannabis enhances athletic performance is in food-eating competitions.
Echoes in Other Sports
Drug policy reform appears to be trickling into other sports. In the NFL, 2020 saw a major shift in which the league will no longer suspend players from games for positive drug tests.
The MLB similarly decided to remove marijuana from its list of prohibited substances in 2019, meaning that baseball players are now free to use marijuana without risk of punishment. However, players are not allowed to work while under the influence and are not allowed to partner with cannabis businesses for sponsorships.
The NBA implemented a temporary ban on random drug tests of its players, which may soon become a permanent policy. The league may opt instead to selectively reach out to players showing signs of dependency and problematic use.
The Future of the Cannabis Ban
Next year could see a dramatic shift if the WADA removes cannabis from its list of banned substances. As arguably the highest-profile agency of its kind, such a decision is likely to echo through the rest of the sports world.