Let’s talk about Sha’Carri Richardson, WADA, and weed.
Last week, American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was excluded from the Tokyo Games based on a positive marijuana test, in violation of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) rule against banned substances. Yesterday, we learned she was deprived of a chance to run in Tokyo by her own country, who had the chance to salvage the Olympics for her, but chose not to.
Full disclosure, I use weed sometimes (my kids tell me this is the “old people” name for marijuana, so if someone wants to tell me the hip, cool name, I’d be grateful). Believe it or not, I had never tried it before it was legalized in Illinois in 2019. I’m a Gen Xer raised smack dab in the middle of Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No,” campaign, socialized to be terrified of anything classified as a “drug,” which was reinforced by the passing of Maryland hoops star Len Bias in 1986. When I went to college, I stuck with alcohol, arguably one of the most dangerous drugs out there. After all, Nancy never told me not to drink.
But after decades of struggling with depression and anxiety, combined with the rise of Twitter, on which one merely survives in a day-to-day battle with toxicity, I gave edibles a try. Immediately, I understood exactly why people were so passionate about legalization. All that adrenaline and cortisol running through my body seemed to dissipate. My mind slowed down and stopped spinning. I was able to sleep. I felt … normal.
All this is to say that yes, WADA is decades behind the times when it comes to how it views marijuana, not to mention the racist tropes that demonized a perfectly helpful herb in the first place. If a white, suburban Gen Xer like me who drives a Kia gets a significant mental health benefit from weed, you can bet a whole lot of others are doing the same. After all, marijuana is now legal in 18 states.
Yet WADA seems stuck in the “Reefer Madness” era by including marijuana on its banned substances list despite zero evidence that it can enhance an athlete’s performance. If you’re interested in the justification WADA (and USADA, by extension) posits for the ban, you should read Tom Schad’s excellent work over at USA Today on the subject.
Much of the discussion on Twitter has centered around why WADA is so regressive when it comes to weed. But that argument is a loser, at least in 2021. Weed is on WADA’s banned list for reasons — Richardson knew it was banned, and ingested it anyway. That’s the argument the anti-weed side takes, and while it’s an unfair one that leaves out Richardson’s humanity and mental health, it’s the one they’re sticking with — largely because they see all athletes, but especially Black ones, as commodities who have to follow the rules or risk rightful banishment, rather than human beings who experience pain.
Instead, let’s talk about making exceptions for people. In 2019, after a report commissioned by WADA found a systemic attempt by Russia to tamper with laboratory data handed over to them (as a condition for ending Russia’s previous three-year ban for — you guessed it — doping), the agency imposed a four-year ban on Russia competing in the Olympics or the World Cup, although “clean” athletes were to be allowed to compete under a neutral banner. It’s funny how WADA keeps finding Russia guilty of doping but most of their athletes are allowed to compete. Who exactly is doping? Their diplomatic delegation?
Here’s what WADA’s CEO, Sir Craig Reedie, said at the time:
While many felt the ban wasn’t a strong enough penalty, given Russia’s egregious history of doping, jaws really hit the floor in 2020, when WADA decided to reduce Russia’s ban by half, meaning it now ends in 2022 instead of 2023. Surprise! And for a country not being allowed to compete under its own flag and anthem, Russian athletes sporting red, white, and blue uniforms and hearing Tchaikovsky while on the podium sure seems very Russia-adjacent. As British cyclist Callum Skinner told The Guardian, “Russia hasn’t been banned, they’ve been rebranded as Neutral Athletes from Russia.”
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