What Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympic snub could mean for cannabis use in sports

Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates after winning the women's 100m in 10.86 during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at Hayward Field. Jun 19, 2021, Eugene, OR, USA. Photo by Kirby Lee/Reuters.

Sha’Carri Richardson took the world by storm with her win in the 100-meter final at the Olympic trials last month in Oregon. Some said her time — 10.86 seconds — made her America’s fastest woman. But she tested positive for THC following the race, so last week, the United States Anti-Doping Agency handed her a one-month suspension. That means she won’t be competing in the Olympic Games this month.  (Though Richardson used cannabis in Oregon, where it is legal.)

Leafly Lifestyle Editor Janessa Bailey speaks to KCRW about what the situation could mean for the sports world.

KCRW: What happened after Richardson’s Olympic trial victory went viral? 

Janessa Bailey: “It seems even though she proved herself in two different races, that she was, in fact, one of the fastest women in the country, that she tested positive for having THC in her system. 

And now, that would be something that normally you would think an Olympic athlete would probably refrain from before a huge race such as that. But … right after her race where she finished in 10.86 seconds, we learned that Sha’Carri had actually lost her biological mother. … Now you have to put into context that she is a holistic human being, and that there's a very strong likelihood that she was also using cannabis for her mental health, as well as anything else that could even potentially help her physically. But also that's not possible — cannabis is not a performance enhancing drug.

What are the International Olympic Committee’s rules on marijuana use and drug testing?

“The World Anti-Doping Agency was created in 1999, and they help oversee anti-doping rule violations in the Olympic Games. This agency considers THC to be a substance of abuse … and say that it is frequently abused in society outside of sport. What's interesting about this to me is that CBD is an exception here. And we know that both THC and CBD are huge parts of the plant. And so why the double standard?”

How common is it for athletes to use marijuana?

“A lot of athletes use marijuana or at least cannabis, CBD. They really will pick which cannabinoid is going to help them the most. But athletes use cannabis for everything from inflammation and the recovery process to anxiety or depression, something similar to what Sha’Carri did, to help them focus or concentrate on their performance. 

I personally have talked to athletes, like former NBA player Matt Barnes, who used cannabis as an alternative to opioids and painkillers because they upset his stomach and because he wanted to be able to go out on the court and just play. And so, I think most importantly, athletes use marijuana for the same things that everyday people use because they are people too. So we have to start asking: In what situations are athletes allowed to be people too?”

Should marijuana be taken off lists of banned substances in sports?

“I definitely think so, particularly if it has to do with any of the American sports. We are at a point now where 82% of teams in the MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL play in a state that either has a medical or legal recreational cannabis program. 

If 82% of these athletes navigate spaces where they can medically or recreationally use cannabis, then how do we responsibly ask them to turn traces of cannabis medicine on and off whenever they take these drug tests? I don't think it's very realistic. 

Some leagues and associations have tried to tackle cannabis testing by either raising the thresholds so that it's very clear that the athlete has used cannabis recently, or they have narrowed down the window of testing to very close to a performance … that's actually something that the Olympics did in 2012. ... But then you can also look at different leagues like the MLB, which completely took cannabinoids off ... they did that in 2019

And you can see that there are a lot of different ways for these different sports organizations to start being realistic about what cannabis can do for an athlete's body, and what's realistic for how they interact and engage with the plant as members of society and as huge members of our culture.”

Credits

Producer:

Tara Atrian