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Sha'Carri Richardson

Sha’Carri Richardson To Serve Competition Ban For Weed: Why WADA’s Cannabis Rules Need Rethinking

On June 19, 21-year-old American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson captured the world’s attention with her 100-meter race win in 10.86 seconds at the United States Track and Field Olympic Trials. (A few months earlier in April, she ran a 10.72, the second fastest time this year.) In the semi-final heats of the same event, she’d beat her own time again with a finish of 10.64

But on July 1, news broke that she would be banned for a month due to a positive drug test for cannabis. Richardson, who has been dubbed the “fastest woman in the world,” will not be permitted to compete for an Olympic medal in the 100-meter race, her main individual event, because of weed. 

Why is Cannabis a Banned Substance in Athletics?

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), formed by the International Olympic Committee to monitor drug usage in athletics, bans a substance if it meets two of three criteria: “(i) potential to enhance performance; (ii) risk for the athletes’ health; and (iii) violation of the spirit of sport.” In 2011, WADA-affiliated authors published a paper stating that cannabinoids meet all three criteria for a banned substance. 

First, the authors of the paper claim that cannabis use in competition is dangerous for athletes due to “increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.” In essence, they claim the combination of risky decisions and loss of motor control puts athletes and those around them in harm’s way. 

In the next section of the paper, “Potential to Enhance Performance,” the authors counterintuitively suggest that the risky decision-making they previously classified as a danger may in fact confer an advantage. They cite studies showing that, among human volunteers, cannabis “increased impulsive responses leading to more risk-taking behaviour but without affecting decision making,” therefore enhancing athletes’ performance.

Sha'Carri Richardson
WADA argues that if athletes like Sha’Carri Richardson use cannabis, it puts them and their fellow athletes at greater risk of harm on the track.

The case for banning cannabis presented in this 2011 publication is shaky. The dated studies cited, mostly published in the early 2000s, argue that cannabis can improve mood, increase vasodilation, lessen fear, and improve recovery. The authors of the 2011 paper further relied on anecdotal evidence from blogs and drug hotlines reporting that “athletes abuse cannabinoids to enhance sport performance.” From this weak, outdated evidence, WADA concludes and continues to maintain that cannabis is performance-enhancing.

Their third criterion, “spirit of sport,” is admittedly poorly defined and seems to exist just to ensure a substance meets two of the three criteria for prohibition. WADA claims that “the international anti-doping community believes that the role model of athletes in modern society is intrinsically incompatible with use or abuse of cannabis,” conveying that an athlete who uses cannabis is not fit to be a role model for young people. To drive the point home, Michael Phelps’s public fall from grace is referenced, even though his cannabis use occurred out of competition and “no anti-doping rule violation was committed,” according to WADA. 

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What Does “Performance-Enhancing” Mean?

Of the three ill-defined criteria, “performance-enhancing” might appear to be the most cut-and-dried. The United States Anti-Doping Agency states that performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) “have the ability or potential to drastically alter the human body and biological functions, including the ability to considerably improve athletic performance in certain instances.”

Yet even that definition is murky and inconsistent.

Caffeine can be classified as a drug, and a solid body of evidence shows a strong link between caffeine and improved athletic performance. Still, caffeine remains legal in the sports world, and isn’t considered dangerous in small quantities. Alcohol, however, can be dangerous, and is also technically relaxing, as a sedative and depressant that affects the central nervous system. 

Furthermore, alcohol may not be in the “spirit of sport,” though it was the celebratory substance of choice throughout the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, and is not prohibited by WADA. Cannabidiol (CBD), one of the more well-studied naturally occurring cannabinoids has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties that are potentially performance-enhancing, yet it’s the one cannabinoid that is not banned by WADA

Cannabis use is prohibited only for in-competition use (defined as within 24 hours of an event), the main reason being that it can relax athletes, which can then boost performance. Indeed, THC and CBD in combination have been shown to produce increased well-being and a sense of calm, with few adverse effects among athletes. However, those well-being and relaxation effects may not actually produce any performance improvement. Recent literature reviews suggest cannabis confers no measurable athletic benefits. 

Sha'Carri Richardson
CBD is the only cannabinoid not banned by WADA. A drug test revealed Sha’Carri Richardson had THC in her system, a banned cannabinoid.

While evidence suggests that cannabis, particularly CBD, aids recovery, reduces inflammation, and eases chronic pain, many of these studies were conducted in rodents, and those findings can’t be extrapolated to humans without more specific research. The very definition of performance-enhancing substances, as well as the application of this ill-defined standard to cannabis, are not well-founded.

What Does the Ruling Against Sha’Carri Richardson Mean?

This ruling denying Sha’Carri Richardson the opportunity to compete for an Olympic medal reveals deeper problems within the International Olympic Committee. 

First, it tells us that the rules regarding cannabis are outdated. More countries continue to relax legislation around cannabis, and to acknowledge and allow medical use. Even WADA now allows CBD, with its known anti-inflammatory, performance-enhancing properties, yet it doesn’t allow any other cannabinoid. 

When the supposedly substantiating paper was published in 2011, cannabis was still highly criminalized. Currently, 12 U.S. states allow recreational cannabis and 36 allow medical marijuana, while Canada, Georgia, Mexico, South Africa, and Uruguay have all legalized recreational cannabis, with many more countries permitting medical use.

Second, recent literature does not support the existence of in-competition advantages conferred by cannabis, though rigorous research is lacking. Nevertheless, the current body of literature does not justify the designation of cannabis as performance-enhancing: the ban on cannabis isn’t rooted in evidence, but in precedent and prejudice. Cannabis has been prohibited, criminalized, and highly regulated for decades, moreover in policies that have disproportionately impacted people of color, through systemic bias in policing, sentencing, and incarceration. 

Richardson’s suspension can be seen as another instance of the still ongoing drug war, conceived to target people of colour. These policies are still leveraged to penalize Black people, consistently denying them opportunities. 

Third, the lack of high-quality evidence on cannabis as a potential PED tells us that more research is urgently needed. If we want to understand the potential performance- and recovery-enhancing effects of the more than 120 cannabinoids contained in cannabis, the first step would be to de-schedule the substance. The barriers to studying cannabis are extremely high because of its classification, resulting in low-quality research, and far too little of it. Needed research would be greatly advanced if cannabis were de-scheduled and federal grants to study its uses and effects were more accessible. 

Our understanding of bodies, drugs, and performance will continue to evolve, and the International Olympic Committee needs to catch up. Sadly, the IOC has fallen far behind the fastest woman in the world.