Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympic Ban Over Weed Is America’s Fault

The rules are the rules. But whose rules are they? Turns out, they come from U.S. government research.
July 7, 2021, 6:29pm
Sha'Carri Richardson reacts after competing in the Women's 100 Meter Semi-finals on day 2 of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 19, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon.

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The saga of Sha’Carri Richardson—the fastest woman in the United States, banned from competing in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics after a drug test revealed she used cannabis last month—has united America in a way that COVID-19 could not.

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The conventional wisdom from just about everyone—President Joe Biden, USA Track & Field (USATF), blabbermouths on Twitter, and Richardson herself—is that the 21-year-old athlete didn’t do anything terribly wrong when she smoked some weed to deal with emotional turmoil after learning from a reporter about her biological mother’s death, as she recounted Friday on the “Today” show. 

But, as Biden said on Saturday, “The rules are the rules. Whether they should remain the rules is a different issue, but the rules are the rules.” USATF hid behind the same tautology on Tuesday, when it announced that although Richardson’s suspension ends in time for her to participate in the 4x100-meter relay, she won’t run in Tokyo at all. 

“While USATF fully agrees that the merit of the World Anti-Doping Agency rules related to THC should be reevaluated, it would be detrimental to the integrity of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field if USATF amended its policies following competition, only weeks before the Olympic Games,” the USATF said in its statement. 

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But exactly whose rules are these “rules” about cannabis in the Olympics? Turns out, they’re from the U.S. government. The scientific basis originates from a research paper that relies solely on data collected decades ago by an employee at the National Institutes on Drug Abuse. That’s what’s denying a Black woman from Dallas a spot in an Olympic event she was favored to win. 

And Biden could, in theory, change that. 

“The whole world generally follows the United States, unfortunately not just in cannabis but in the whole war on drugs,” said Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School, who also writes and speaks about drugs. “They’ve also followed the U.S. largely in cannabis policy, to the profound detriment of millions of people, and of medicine, and research, and so forth.”

“If it’s performance-enhancing, why did you spend 60 years saying it causes amotivational syndrome? And if it harms the athletes, how is it performance-enhancing?”

Cannabis is banned in the Olympics by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which regulates the chemical intake of athletes in the Olympics and most professional soccer players (but not most major U.S. sports, nor the NCAA). Created after the doping scandal-plagued the 1998 Tour de France, WADA has updated its policy on cannabis several times in the past 20 years. Athletes can now use CBD, for example. But under the most recent “banned list” published in September, WADA still bans THC.

As explained by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency—the outfit that manages the drug-testing program for U.S. Olympic athletes under WADA rules—WADA bans substances if they meet at least two out of three criteria. The substance must pose “a health risk to athletes”; it must have “the potential to enhance performance”; and, most ambiguously, it “violates the spirit of sport.”

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Cannabis meets all three criteria, according to the science laid out in a paper titled “Cannabis in Sport: Anti-Doping Perspective,” published in the November 2011 edition of the journal Sports Medicine

A “controversial issue” that requires more research—many signatories to WADA’s World Anti-Doping Code didn’t want weed included at all, the article’s authors write—the paper’s authors nonetheless declared cannabis both deleterious and performance enhancing after a review of available research and literature. One justification offered was a statement from pro skateboarder Bob Burnquist, who once said in an interview that cannabis helps “relieve the pressure associated” with elite competition.

“There’s no evidence for that [classification] whatsoever,” said Grinspoon. “If it’s performance-enhancing, why did you spend 60 years saying it causes amotivational syndrome? And if it harms the athletes, how is it performance-enhancing?”

“What is this magical drug that’s bad in every possible parameter, even if the parameters contradict each other?” he added. 

In its FAQs, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency says WADA published the paper. That is, WADA wrote its own rules. That’s only partially true. Two of the paper’s three authors are WADA employees. But the third—who’s listed as the lead author—is Marilyn A. Huestis, who worked for nearly 30 years as a toxicologist and researcher for the U.S. federal government’s National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

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Part of the National Institutes of Health—the same agency that also employs Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s COVID-19 seer—NIDA is notorious in cannabis-research circles for only funding and publishing research that “shows” cannabis is harmful and bad.

That’s still true today, in 2021, when more than 120 million Americans, nearly half the country, live in states where adult-use cannabis is legal. And it was absolutely true in 2011, before a single state had legalized weed and when President Barack Obama’s administration was pursuing federal charges against medical cannabis patients. 

The only “original data collected in cannabis research” cited in the paper was conducted by Huestis during her 27-year stint at NIDA: how cannabis is metabolized and absorbed into the body, and where in the body THC metabolites are found. That is, the only research justifying Richardson’s Olympic ban was created by the U.S. federal government, which still declares cannabis an addictive substance with no medical value.

Huestis, who’s now working as an independent toxicologist in semi-retirement and as a professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, declined to comment. 

“I suggest you contact WADA media for any questions,” she told VICE News via email.

Neither NIDA nor WADA immediately responded to a request for comment. However, you can still draw a direct line from WADA’s ban to Huestis’ paper and NIDA. And NIDA is “very much known for, for lack of a better word, partisan view on cannabis,” Grinspoon added. “They’re very one-sided and negative.”

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So while you can’t say that WADA took its cues directly from the White House, it’s not far off. And the federal government is still chiefly responsible for the paper that justifies not sending Richardson to run in the Olympics. 

“If not absolutely influenced, it was a very disproportionate influence,” Grinspoon said.

Later research from other countries support Grinspoon’s analysis. In a paper published last year, Canadian and Swiss researchers found that “cannabis does not appear to positively affect performance, but the literature surrounding this is generally poor.” 

Given WADA’s punitive ban—and the policies of other sports like Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, which barely test for cannabis and don’t do much when a player does pee hot—“there is a need to improve our understanding of the effects of cannabis use on the athlete and perhaps adopt a clearer and overarching policy for the use of cannabis by athletes in all sports and at all levels,” they wrote. 

As president, Biden could do that in a number of ways, such as by ordering a review of his government’s research, including the research cited in the paper. Until then, the rules will remain the rules, even if they’re bad rules, based on bad science.