Sha'Carri Richardson's suspension for using cannabis
EUGENE, OREGON - JUNE 19: Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates winning the Women's 100 Meter final on day 2 of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 19, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Up In Smoke: Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension for cannabis and the war on doping

It won’t help you win a gold medal, but the biggest danger of cannabis is, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency, being illegal.

“People don’t understand what it’s like to have to … go in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain,” said Sha’Carri Richardson in an interview on Today. When a reporter inappropriately informed Richardson of her mother’s death during an interview, the 21-year-old American track and field star said she fell into a state of emotional panic. 

Richardson admitted to using cannabis while in Oregon, a state where cannabis is legal, for the Olympic trials to cope with the trauma. After testing positive for THC, on Friday, the US Anti-Doping Agency announced a one-month suspension. Richardson’s sentence is the minimum, given when an athlete can demonstrate that the cannabis use was unrelated to the sport. 

Many prominent sports leagues like the NFL, the UFC and the NHL have stopped penalizing cannabis use. The NFL, in particular, formed a Pain Management Committee with a $1 million pledge to research cannabis for the treatment of chronic pain. Yet, few experts believe cannabis boosts athletic performance. Why the World Anti-Doping Agency continues to prohibit cannabis as a substance of abuse alongside cocaine, heroin and MDMA, remains a byproduct of the war on drugs and, ultimately, the racism that built it.

Anti-doping policies are built on racism and vagaries

From record-shattering times to her iconic technicolour hair and acrylic nails, Sha’Carri Richardson is magnetic. The attention the rising track and field runner gathers is proverbially both positive and negative. Likewise, the discussion around cannabis prohibition is a political minefield, rooted in, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter, “the system racism that’s long driven anti-marijuana laws.”

“[It started with] a president that wanted to arrest Black, Brown and Jewish agitators,” explains Delic CEO and former High Times mogul Matt Stang. “He wanted to raid Abbie Rosen and Bobby Carmichael. He specifically wanted to raid them because he was fighting against his management, and the only way he could do it was criminalizing something they did.”

Today, Olympic bodies and national doping agencies globally enforce the 184-page World Anti-Doping Code. It’s a revolving door of a few hundred banned substances, from steroids to stimulants and recreational drugs. That included caffeine until 2004. Banned substances must meet one of three criteria: it has the potential or proven ability to enhance performance, the potential to cause harm to an athlete, or the use is considered “against the spirit of sport.”

That last clause is exactly as worryingly vague as it sounds. WADA defines “the spirit of the sport” with nothing more than a series of value-loaded words like “courage.” There are also only unclear explanations for which three criteria these banned substances violate — with a notable exception for cannabis, which apparently, violates all three

It’s considered a performance enhancer because of the ability to decrease anxiety and improve oxygenation and concentration. Considered a health risk because it can result in “decreased cognitive performance,” and most importantly, it violates the “spirit of the sport” by drumming “negative reactions by the public, sponsors and the media,” — the biggest danger of cannabis is, according to WADA, just being illegal.

Cannabis’s disqualifying criteria only highlights how criminalization by governmental bodies drives its inclusion as a banned substance rather than an alleged potential to enhance performance. When 50 percent of stakeholders in WADA are governments, the picture comes into crystal clear focus.

The war on drugs is a war on doping

After thirty years on the front line of the sports war on drugs, by the early 2010s, Doug Logan gave up. The anti-doping movement, Logan realized, was a war with few victories. “This is a war we have not won, cannot win, and should not be involved with,” he said in an interview with Vice.

“This is a war we have not won, cannot win, and should not be involved with,”

Doug Logan

Doping is as old as the Olympics itself. Older still than ancient Grecian Olympic athletes who chewed on raw testicles hoping to enhance performance. A year-long investigation by the Australian Crime Commission into performance enhancers in professional sports found athletes evading the WADA ban list with anything from calf blood extracts and pig brain to designer drugs still in clinical trials. 

The reality is that drug testing isn’t particularly effective to begin with. Of 270,000 doping tests from WADA-accredited labs worldwide in 2012, only one percent tested positive for banned substances. Yet, no one believes the numbers for doping are anywhere near that low. BALCO, the Russian scandal of 2016, Alberto Salazar, Armstrong and the Tour de France in the 1990s were all exposed by some combination of whistleblowers or law enforcement, not drug testing. 

The war on anti-doping is, at least partially, an extension of the larger war on drugs. WADA’s effectiveness as a global entity isn’t in busting athletes for doping but public relations. Performance enhancers are good PR when boosting national morale, not so much when they become a scandal.

Performance enhancers are good PR when boosting national morale, not so much when they become a scandal.

“World Record” by Yoshiaki Kawajiri via The Animatrix

Today’s legal pre-workout compound is tomorrow’s career-ending doping bust. American sprinter Phil Derosier knows that more than anyone. A failed doping test cost Derosier a six-month suspension and the majority of his income from sponsorships. The offending substance? A legal nutritional supplement containing methylhexanamine, a stimulant left off the label and WADA’s banned substances list. With millions on the line in WADA testing, there’s a bottom line to meet. “In my opinion, I was a quota,” Derosier says in Doped: The Dirty Side of Sports.

The myth of the pure human athlete

Arguably, what WADA is trying to protect is some teleological model of an athlete. Unaltered, unadulterated, homegrown human strength. A view that has and always will be completely at odds with elite sports. From eating testicles to nandrolone, the intent is the same: find the limits of human strength and transcend them. If we want athletes to break world records, it won’t happen without technology. In an era of genetic modification and transhumanism, what does it mean to be a natural human?

In an era of genetic modification and transhumanism, what does it mean to be a natural human?

“World Record” by Yoshiaki Kawajiri via The Animatrix

Not to say that we should strive for a return to form a la East Germany’s state-sponsored doping where athletes as young as eight were given steroids against their will. Instead, a move towards harm reduction and establishing scientifically-backed levels of risk, then test for that. We can’t pretend that the line between enhancement and therapy is clear-cut. If it’s not an unfair advantage for baseball players to get LASIK surgery to correct vision beyond 20/20, why is cannabis?

The war on drugs, and subsequently, the war on doping, is a war on human nature.

Sha’carri Richardson takes a breath in her Today interview. “Don’t judge me because I am human. I’m you. I just happen to run a little faster.”