The Olympics and Cannabis
The highly debated topic of cannabis has become a focal point at this years olympic games.
Anyone watching the Tokyo Olympics has undoubtedly noticed that things have been a little off this year. Empty stands, COVID cases and athletes struggling under greater stressors than usual hover over competitions that are supposed to transcend society’s challenges. For Americans, one of those challenges comes with the changing status of cannabis in our society, which was highlighted before the Olympics even began. Not a week after winning the 100-meter race in the US Olympics Track & Field Finals in 10.86 seconds, American sprinter Sha’carri Richardson saw the opportunity to make history in Tokyo snatched from her after testing positive for THC metabolites. Explaining that she had consumed cannabis after the death of her mother, she was suspended for 30 days and cut from the track and field team altogether. For those hoping to see validation of Sha’carri’s hard work and suffering through victory on the Olympic fields, this development left them instead sorrowful and infuriated.
This unfortunate turn of events underscores how much things have changed surrounding the role of cannabis in competitive sports. Just two years ago, National League Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred announced that cannabis would be taken off of its “drugs of abuse” list. The NBA temporarily suspended cannabis drug testing at the beginning of last year, a policy that has been extended and that some believe may remain permanent. For their part, the UFC recently declared that they would no longer penalize fighters automatically if cannabis metabolites are found in their bloodstream. And the NFL, long targeted by former players like Eugene Monroe for their draconian cannabis use policies, has pledged to fund research into cannabis medicine as an option for their players. Some former players have even jumped into the medical cannabis field as entrepreneurs. This week, NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson announced a multi-year partnership with fellow former pro-baller Al Harrington’s Viola Extracts, further legitimizing athletic involvement in the cannabis industry.
Yet while all of these developments were happening in the US sports world, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and US Anti-Doping Agency, its sister organization in the United States, hasn’t changed its policies since 1998. In that year, Ross Rebagliati won the gold medal for men’s giant slalom event in the then brand-new snowboarding competition, only to test positive for cannabis. After the International Olympics Commission initially took the medal from him, he later retrieved it on appeal, as cannabis was not explicitly banned by the IOC at that time. The United States afterwards urged WADA to institute a ban, and it complied. Since then, as WADA itself responded in a letter to Representatives Jamie Raskin (MD) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), “the U.S. has been one of the most vocal and strong advocates for including cannabinoids on [WADA’s] Prohibited List. The meeting minutes and written submissions received from the U.S. over nearly two decades, in particular from USADA, have consistently advocated for cannabinoids to be included on the Prohibited List.”
WADA also mentioned in the same letter that cannabis is only banned “in competition” and not during an athlete’s time outside of it. As for why cannabis continues to be included on the organization’s Prohibited List, WADA lists three criteria for a substance’s inclusion:
1. It has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance.
2. It represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete.
3. It violates the spirit of sport.
Since Sha’carri’s suspension, there’s been plenty of public critique on point number one, most notably by Seth Rogen who recently Tweeted, “[i]f weed made you fast, I’d be FloJo.” . Similarly, TN Representative Stephen Cohen quipped, “[m]arijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug unless you’re entered in the Coney Island hotdog-eating contest on the 4th of July.”
On the other hand, the matter is far from settled. For example, a study published by the World Anti-Doping Association in the November 1, 2011 issue of Sports Medicine concluded, “[r]ecent advances in understanding the endogenous cannabinoid system demonstrate its important role in many critical functions that could positively affect sports performance.”
Number two has also been disputed, considering cannabis’s non-toxicity. Moreover, an exception for the performance-enhancing drug caffeine was carved out once WADA was confronted by its ubiquity, so removals from the Prohibited List can occur once a substance’s inclusion becomes untenable.
For their part, the US Anti-Doping Agency, which WADA has targeted as the main body responsible for imposing the suspension, has expressed openness towards altering the rules. The USADA’s President Emeritus/two-time gold medalist Edwin Moses, during a Congressional hearing on the issue, labeled the Richardson matter as “heartbreaking,” but also acknowledged the existence of countries, Japan included, whose positions on cannabis “will [not] ever be as liberal as [America’s] are.”
Still, Sha’carri’s conspicuous absence at this year’s Olympics continues to send shockwaves. President of World Athletics and 4 time Olympic medalist, Sebastian Coe, recently announced his support for a review of the international ban just 23 years after Barry McCaffrey, of the Office for National Drug Control Policy, responding to Ross Rebagliati’s aforementioned Olympic media fiasco, decided the Olympics needed to send out a strong anti-drug message to America’s youth. For her part, Richardson does not sound like she’s going to take cannabis vaping company Dr. Dabber up on their $250,000 sponsorship deal anytime soon. Speaking to Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s Today Show, she took pains to say, “You will never see a steroid attached to the name Sha’carri Richardson… the situation was marijuana. If you choose to do things like that, you should be aware of the consequences.”