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Sha’Carri Richardson’s ban a reminder of the injustice of cannabis prohibition

Jul 08, 2021

2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, adult-use cannabis consumption, athlete, Dr. Alan Vernec, Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, marijuana ban, Olympic Games, performance-enhancing drug, regulations, rules, Sha'Carri Richardson, suspension, United States Anti-Doping Agency, USA Track and Field, USA Track Team, USADA, USATF, WADA, World Anti-Doping Agency


Becoming an elite athlete takes years of dedication — long days, longer nights, pain, and sacrifice. As an Olympic caliber sprinter, Sha’Carri Richardson committed herself to the process, navigating a labyrinth of rules and regulations for the chance to compete at the highest level of her sport. On July 2, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) dashed her dreams of participating in the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games with a suspension for violating its ban on marijuana, an outdated rule with no basis in science.

Demonstrating maturity and poise, Sha’Carri took full responsibility for breaking the rules, but her acceptance can’t change the weight of this injustice. The USADA’s marijuana ban, derived from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) classification, is a vestige of cannabis prohibition’s vile legacy. A legacy that is built on racism. 

Harry Anslinger, a founding commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, designed and successfully executed the campaign to outlaw cannabis. He crafted it as a tool to suppress and control what he called the “degenerate races.” More than eight decades later, Anslinger’s crusade against cannabis, which snaked its way into our cultural norms, finally shows signs of cracking. Adult-use marijuana is currently legal in Washington, D.C. and 19 states, including Oregon, where 21-year-old Sha’Carri consumed to cope with the tragic loss of her mother.

Ninety-one percent of Americans support cannabis legalization for medical or adult use. Other sports leagues have removed cannabis restrictions, and it’s time for both WADA and USADA to pull the plant from its list of prohibited substances. Congress has demonstrated support for eliminating the ban, and President Biden should unequivocally support this reform as well. The current policy is indefensible. 

The World Anti-Doping Agency outlaws marijuana claiming that it is both a performance-enhancing drug and a substance of abuse. The agency's own medical director, Dr. Alan Vernec, stated, "There is no evidence for cannabis use as a performance-enhancing drug," in a co-authored paper for The Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. And, the 'substance of abuse' label is an arbitrary and nebulous designation, permitting WADA to suspend athletes who test positive, effectively forcing them to enter a drug treatment program in order to shorten their punishment.

Sadly, Sha’Carri’s atonement wasn’t enough to garner her a second chance. USA Track and Field (USATF) excluded her from the relay team, despite her eligibility. In the span of two weeks, Sha’Carri went from being the breakout star of the USA Track Team to being completely shut out of the Olympic Games. All because of a rule that should not exist.

While the nation grieves the loss of a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity along with Sha’Carri, we must also speak out to ensure that she is the last American athlete to suffer the indignity of being banned from Olympic competition for consuming cannabis. The damage caused by prohibition permeates our governmental, societal, and cultural institutions. In order to repair the harm, we need to stand against the injustice and continue the fight to legalize and normalize cannabis, demanding an end to archaic and discriminatory policies, wherever they may be. 

— Steven Hawkins, executive director, Marijuana Policy Project