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The doping rules that cost Sha’Carri Richardson have a debated, political history

Sha'Carri Richardson will not be able to participate in the 100-meter event at the Tokyo Olympics. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Sha’Carri Richardson’s positive marijuana test left a marquee event of this month’s Tokyo Olympics without one of the United States’ most captivating athletes. It also represented a collision of Olympic bureaucracy, shifting attitudes toward cannabis internationally and domestically, and the unsettling endurance of criminal drug policies.

The suspension of Richardson, a magnetic athlete known for her technicolor hair, long fingernails and free-flowing interviews, left many U.S. fans saddened, stunned and confused. While some questioned why she would use a drug widely known to be on the list of banned substances, others wondered why a substance that a majority of Americans regard as harmless remains on that list alongside anabolic steroids and masking agents.

“I understand that the Olympics have the ability to sanction players based on conduct and for using performance-enhancing drugs, but there’s no evidence that cannabis is performance-enhancing,” Arizona-based physician and marijuana researcher Sue Sisley said. “This seems genuinely unfair that we continue to punish athletes based on a test that should not even be done. Why do the Olympics continue to test for THC at all?”

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Richardson, 21, did not violate any codes pertaining to fair play. After learning of her biological mother’s death and facing pressure to perform at the U.S. Olympic trials, Richardson said, she used marijuana in Oregon, where it is fully legalized. But the World Anti-Doping Agency lists THC as a substance of abuse alongside cocaine, heroin and MDMA/ecstasy. It tests athletes for substances of abuse only during competition, not during training.

“One of these days, we should probably either take it off the list entirely or say it’s there but the minimum sanction should be something like a warning, so you’re not losing any period of eligibility,” said International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound, one of the founders of WADA. “Frankly, I don’t think there’s evidence it’s performance-enhancing, and/or it’s a drug that masks the use of other drugs.”

The month-long suspension from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency disqualified Richardson’s championship performance at the trials and will prevent her from running the 100 meters, the race that launched her into sudden stardom last month, at the Tokyo Olympics. She still may be able to compete in the 4x100 relay if USA Track & Field officials decide to include her on the Tokyo-bound team despite the positive test.

Tangled roots

The World Anti-Doping Code is a 184-page document that is globally recognized and enforced by Olympic bodies and national doping agencies, listing a few hundred banned substances, including steroids, masking agents, stimulants and recreational drugs.

Under WADA’s policies, substances are placed on the prohibited list if they meet two of three conditions: They have the potential or proven ability to enhance performance, they have the potential to cause harm to an athlete, or their use is considered against the spirit of sport.

Pound recalled marijuana’s inclusion on the original WADA list as driven by governmental views. He now says it never made sense for a governing body overseeing sports to prohibit it.

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“We were a little diffident about saying, ‘Even though these things are prohibited by criminal law, we don’t care,’ ” Pound said. “That just looked bad. But I think as thought has been given to these things over the years, they’re really not performance-enhancing.”

Within the anti-doping movement, experts said, the question of whether marijuana could enhance performance or endanger an athlete in some sports is not settled. USADA and WADA have debated internally for years its effects on competition, even if the hypotheticals raised strike some as unrealistic. Would it allow a diver or a snowboarder to alleviate stress? Could it lead a lackadaisical boxer to suffer an injury? Or might it help an injured athlete manage his or her pain?

Athletes in other sports have become increasingly public about their marijuana use. Basketball star Natasha Cloud offered her support to Richardson, saying, “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.

Richardson said she used marijuana to cope with the revelation, which she learned from a reporter, that her mother had recently died. “That sent me into a state of mind, a state of emotional panic,” Richardson said Friday morning on the “Today” show.

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In its latest guidelines, WADA classifies it as a substance of abuse, which suggests the agency considers it to be potentially harmful and against the spirit of sport. By that definition, many other drugs, including alcohol, conceivably could fall under the same definition.

“Why not cigarette smoke?” said Oliver Catlin, co-founder of the Banned Substances Control Group and the son of the longtime head of U.S. anti-doping efforts, Don Catlin. “It arguably would cause harm. Does it have the same perceptional challenge with it where it would be against the spirit of sport? I don’t even know what the ‘spirit of sport’ is. I laugh about that myself. The definition of that would mean different things to different people who may review an issue like this.”

In 2013, WADA raised the threshold for a positive marijuana test from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 150, making it harder for athletes who used the drug to get ensnared by the positive test. But some marijuana advocates say even that is an imprecise standard.

“The bottom line is those nanogram correlations don’t make any sense,” Sisley said. “Those are typically used only for driving safety, for impairment while driving. So to try to use these levels for elite athletes is absurd. It’s not based on any science. We don’t know if a certain nanogram level is going to give players some kind of competitive advantage.”

Political influence

Since the 1980s, WADA has debated whether marijuana should be prohibited. The discussion become a political minefield, with more than 100 countries represented and nearly as many national outlooks toward marijuana. Even today, while roughly 40 countries have at least partially legalized marijuana, others punish marijuana use or possession with prison time. The rollback of penalties may provide a starting point to convince involved governments that WADA can remove marijuana from the list altogether.

“You have to deal with the art of the plausible here,” Pound said. “Fifty percent of the stakeholders in WADA are governments. Many of them would be reluctant to indicate any kind of complete non-responsibility. The next step is to say: ‘Look, we understand your concern, but the criminal use of this stuff, the criminal distribution of it, that’s not really a sport problem any more. That’s your problem as a government.’ ”

U.S. domestic politics played a role as well, stemming from an era when the war on drugs remained national policy. In 1998, the United States pledged $1 million to assist the IOC in cleansing drugs from sports. Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar under President Bill Clinton, made clear that the United States believed the IOC should fight both performance-enhancing drugs and recreational drugs such as marijuana. McCaffrey’s office lobbied U.S. anti-doping leaders to include marijuana on the banned list.

“We raise Olympic athletes up on international pedestals for all the world’s children to look up to as role models — it is vital that the message they send is drug-free,” McCaffrey said at the time. “The goal of this whole effort must be to prevent Olympic medals and the Olympic movement from being tarnished by drugs.”

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Pound remembered McCaffrey’s office as being “insistent” on keeping marijuana on the banned list. “Barry McCaffrey was very much committed to keeping marijuana there,” he said.

For some advocates, Richardson’s suspension served as an echo of that era. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called the decision to suspend Richardson “rooted solely in the systemic racism that’s long driven anti-marijuana laws.”

“Drug testing is yet another tool of the drug war, and it’s a failure,” Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Kassandra Frederique said in a statement. “Sha’Carri’s suspension serves as a cautionary tale and a reminder of how insidious the drug war is in our everyday lives, far beyond the carceral state. Drug testing does nothing to show current impairment. The USADA must undo this archaic, inhumane, and unscientific policy.”

President Biden chimed in Saturday: “Everybody knows of the rules going in. Whether they should remain the rules is a different issue, but the rules are the rules. ... I was really proud of the way she responded.”

The role of image-conscious corporate sponsors also has helped maintain prohibitions on cannabis. In 2009, months after winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, decorated American swimmer Michael Phelps lost several sponsors and earned a three-month suspension after a video of him smoking marijuana surfaced.

“I think that really answers the question on why this drug continues to be banned,” Catlin said. “In general across sport, this is a drug that has been illegal and continues to be illegal in many countries. It’s just the simple reality that sport in the Olympic movement and other areas outside of the Olympic movement just don’t want to be associated with that illegal drug connotation. … It’s certainly the money and sponsors that I think really keeps it prohibited and will continue to keep it prohibited for some time.”

Shifting views

In the United States, prominent sports leagues have relaxed restrictions and punishment for marijuana use. Sisley treats several professional athletes and has lobbied pro leagues to alter their policies and allow athletes to use marijuana to treat chronic pain. The NFL recently made significant strides, forming a Pain Management Committee and pledging $1 million to research marijuana as a treatment for pain.

WADA “should be studying this just the way the NFL did,” Sisley said. “We need science to lead the way here, and so far there’s no science to banning cannabis. The best approach would be for the Olympic officials to just remove that from testing. We shouldn’t be testing for this anymore.”

WADA has taken steps toward marijuana leniency. This year, it reduced the length of suspension for athletes. In 2013, when it increased the threshold that triggers a positive test, the average number of athletes who tested positive annually dropped from roughly 400 to about 130.

Marijuana remained the ninth-most flagged drug in 2019, Catlin said, which raises questions about priorities of a system meant to preserve fair competition. Catlin imagined polling 100 athletes with two questions: Would you mind if the competitor next to you on the starting blocks was taking anabolic steroids? And would you mind if the competitor next to you on the starting blocks smoked marijuana last week? Catlin assumes the results would produce an inverse of extremes.

Testing for marijuana requires resources within an overburdened system. WADA processed 130 athletes who tested positive for marijuana in 2019, the last full year of competition and testing. Each case, Catlin said, costs anti-doping agencies roughly $10,000.

“It would seem to be more of an image management or a health management situation, where you’re not trying to manage performance enhancement,” Catlin said. “There are so many things we have to chase in anti-doping, I could see $1.3 million spent in other areas that may have more value that protect in areas of performance enhancement.”

Given the punishment reductions, it appears WADA never intended for a positive marijuana test to keep an athlete out of the Olympics. Richardson’s timing, not her offense, resulted in such significant consequences. She was suspended the same 30 days as other athletes who test positive for marijuana, including two Americans in the past three months. It just so happened her 30 days fell during the Olympics.

Pound predicted that the next WADA code would include a recommendation that marijuana should not be viewed as a sport-related drug. In the United States, if not the entire world, attitudes have changed.

“The question is, as those attitudes start to shift and adjust,” Catlin said, “is it time for the Olympic movement to shift and adjust as well?”

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