Why can’t Olympians smoke weed?

Sha’Carri Richardson, once poised for Olympic gold, will not be running in Tokyo this summer. The news has drawn a sense from supporters that this young, Black track phenom has been wronged by sporting rules on pot that are overdue for a change.

USA Track and Field announced that she had not been selected for the U.S. relay team on Tuesday, after she was disqualified earlier from the 100-meter race due to a positive test for THC. Her chances dashed at an Olympic debut, fellow elite athletes have come to her defense and to say that marijuana shouldn’t be grouped with drugs that are explicitly used for enhancing performance.

Recreational or medicinal marijuana is legal in dozens of countries, 36 states and four U.S. territories. That includes Oregon, where the Olympic Trials were held and where Richardson told the “Today” show she used the substance. But cannabinoids are prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) regardless of where an athlete lives.

WADA, which governs what athletes are and are not allowed to use, says it bans substances for three reasons: It can enhance or potentially enhance performance; it represents an actual or potential health risk; or it violates the “spirit of sport.”

When the PBS NewsHour asked WADA to specify why cannabis is banned, the agency responded by email that they do not “publish which criteria each substance or method fulfills when publishing the [banned substance] List.”

Anti-doping agencies consider THC a “substance of abuse” and is only tested for during competition. Other substances in this category include heroin, MDMA and cocaine. A positive test can result in a three-month sanction, but is reduced to one month if the athlete participates in a treatment program.

The fallout “spotlights the many inherent contradictions of our cannabis policies at the state, federal and international level, which results in different sets of rules for different people in different parts of the world,” said David Culver, a vice president at Canopy Growth, a Canadian cannabis company, in a statement to the PBS NewsHour.

And many feel that Richardson’s being left off the team is another instance of a Black female athlete receiving unfair scrutiny.

“All these perfect people that know how to live life,” Richardson tweeted on July 4 after promising to be the next world champion. “I’m glad I’m not one of them!”

What happened

Richardson rose to stardom in 2019 as a freshman at Louisiana State University when she broke the NCAA record for the 100-meter race in 10.75 seconds. At the U.S. Olympic trials this year, the 21-year-old won the 100-meters with a time of 10.86 seconds, seemingly securing her spot for Tokyo. Less than a week later, it was reported that she had tested positive for THC and she was suspended from the sport for 30 days — the shortest time allowed for cannabis use — which meant she couldn’t run her main event. She might have been able to run in the 4×100 relay race, which would take place after the 30-day suspension, butt U.S. Track and Field did not select her for the team.

Richardson told “Today” that three days before the Olympic trials she found out from a reporter that her biological mother had died, and she turned to cannabis to help her cope. She acknowledged using the substance despite knowing it was against the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules. And she completed a counseling program that reduced her ineligibility to one month, according to USADA.

“Sha’Carri Richardson’s situation is incredibly unfortunate and devastating for everyone involved,” USA Track & Field said in a statement last week. “Athlete health and well-being continue to be one of USATF’s most critical priorities and we will work with Sha’Carri to ensure she has ample resources to overcome any mental health challenges now and in the future.”

Shikha Tandon, a swimmer who competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics for India and worked at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency from 2011-2016, said cannabis is considered a performance enhancer, but that WADA does not disclose exactly how it enhances performance. The agency is trusted to govern doping worldwide, and athletes around the world know they have to abide by WADA’s rules in order to compete, she said.

Anti-doping is essential to fair competition. Russian athletes have been top Olympic medal winners for decades, but in 2016, whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov exposed a state-run doping program. The country was stripped of 51 medals — the most from any country — and is banned from using its name, anthem and flag in the Olympics until 2022 because of the scandal.

At the individual level, Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, was suspended from competition for three months by USA Swimming based on a photo of him with a bong. But the photo was taken three months after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, so the disciplinary action did not stop him from any competition. Last month, U.S. runner Shelby Houlihan’s punishment was upheld for testing positive for nandrolone, an anabolic steroid, a result that she blamed on eating a pork burrito. She has been banned from competing for four years.

Richardson has received support from several elite athletes, including former Olympian Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns and Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics, who suggest the system should be reformed.

“It’s time to break the stigma surrounding athletes use of marijuana. I have my medical card. I play at the highest level my sport has to offer and I use medicinal marijuana for anxiety, recovery, and sleep,” Cloud tweeted.

Is cannabis a performance enhancer?

The short answer is no, experts say. A 2017 review of 15 studies on cannabis and athletic performance found that cannabis does not improve athletic performance (such as improving speed or strength), and in a few of the studies cannabis actually decreased performance.

READ MORE: Medical marijuana research comes out of the shadows

A quick reminder about weed: The chemical compounds in cannabis can affect parts of the brain that control pleasure, memory, concentration and coordination, among others. It is known to have a relaxing effect, but can actually increase anxiety depending on the amount, as well as a person’s environment and genetics. Studies have shown that it can have anti-inflammatory effects and help with sleep recovery. Miyabe Shields, chief scientist for Real Isolates, a cannabis research company, said those effects are similar to an ibuprofen, a drug that is not prohibited. Marijuana will not magically heal a sprained ankle overnight or give an athlete an unfair advantage while recovering.

While there are health risks associated with cannabis, some studies have shown it can offer medical benefits, like alleviating pain in cancer patients and increasing appetite in people with HIV/AIDS. Shields said it is important to acknowledge that cannabis is not for everyone, but that its positives often get lost in the decades-long “war on drugs” that began with the Reagan administration.

“People seem to believe that cannabis is either the devil’s lettuce or this miraculous thing,” Shields said. “That’s not true. It’s in the middle.”

Cannabis also stays detectable in a person’s body longer than other drugs, like cocaine, amphetamines and alcohol. Even if the person no longer is experiencing the psychoactive effects, THC can be found in someone’s urine 30 days after they’ve used it.

Tandon said WADA’s THC thresholds aim to mitigate disqualifying someone for prior use of cannabis. She added that some athletes can apply for waivers to use certain banned substances for health reasons, called a “therapeutic use exemption,” but that they must go through the proper process to obtain the exemption prior to testing.

Sporting a double standard?

So does marijuana use violate “spirit of sport”? According to WADA’s 2021 code, that’s defined as “the ethical pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each Athlete’s natural talents.”

To Elena Simpkins, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant who earned her PhD studying Black women in sports, “The vagueness of that definition very much lends to the ability to further scrutinize certain types of athletes.”

Historically, Black people and people of color have borne disproportionate punishment, including when it comes to rules based on others’ perceptions, from behavior in school to what police officers decide is disorderly conduct. Some of the greatest athletes of all time, Black women, have also faced worse or unfair scrutiny compared to white and male peers: Track star Florence Griffith-Joyner, known as FloJo, was repeatedly accused of using performance enhancing drugs despite passing every drug test. Serena Williams has had her tennis attire banned and been fined for getting frustrated with a referee’s calls. Gymnast Simone Biles has received scores that were seen as undervalued because USA Gymnastics wanted to dissuade other athletes from the perilous moves.

The relationship between cannabis and the Black community is also historically discriminatory. Black people do not use the substance more than white people, but Black people are incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses at much higher rates. Black athletes don’t escape that history, Simpkins said.

“This is another example of a young, promising, Black individual being punished by incoherent and outdated cannabis laws and it must stop,” Culver of Canopy Growth said.

Tandon said abiding by the “spirit of sport” protects the integrity of sports, and that it applies to all athletes equally. WADA wrote in an email to the PBS NewsHour that it has internal policies and training in place regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, but a May 2021 report to Congress said that it needed to “identify a diversity, equity, and inclusion policy for WADA, along with an implementation plan.” .

“Absurd and offensive are the first two words that come to mind,” Simpkins said, referring to WADA’s lack of a public diversity policy. WADA is an international organization that governs doping for athletes globally — different sports, races, cultures and histories. DEI needs to be ingrained in every part of institutions in order to actually work equitably, Simpkins said, and a global organization especially needs to have this work at its forefront.

She added that Richardson should not have to disclose to the world the trauma of losing her mother to make her use of a legal substance permissible, and that her disqualification for cannabis is unfair regardless of why she used it. “You can’t just have empathy for Black women when a mistake is made,” Simpkins said.

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