As a growing number of American states legalize adult-use cannabis and several countries around the world begin to legalize or at least decriminalize the plant, millions more individuals have been granted the right to light a joint or bowl safely and legally. However, there are many Americans who, despite laws suggesting that it is acceptable, suffer dire consequences for their legal cannabis consumption. For example, American track and field sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson recently lost her chance to compete in the Olympic games that will begin in Tokyo on July 23rd because a drug test found THC in her system. Following the positive drug test, Richardson was suspended for 30 days starting on June 28th, which disqualified her from participating in the Olympic 100-meter dash she was set to compete in. In light of the fact that cannabis is becoming more legally and socially acceptable, this event has caused plenty of controversy. Many argue that Richardson fully deserved her suspension because she was aware that marijuana use would disqualify her and that she knowingly flouted a guideline. However, many individuals also consider Richardson’s removal from the Olympic games an opportunity to discuss the issue of anti-cannabis policies in athletics and what they mean for a society where the plant is becoming increasingly legal. One might also argue that incidences such as this one are likely to become more and more common as the fight for legalization progresses. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension should be recognized as an important example of what is likely to happen if the athletic world continues to prohibit athletes from engaging in behavior that many Americans enjoy legally on a daily basis.
Fans were elated when sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson cemented her place in the 2021 Olympics after winning the preliminary women’s 100-meter run in June. However, not long after this victory, Richardson found herself suspended and unable to take her place in the games after a positive test for THC. Additionally, while there were brief hopes that Richardson might still be able to compete in the Olympic Games in the form of the 4x100 relay race, USA Track and Field left her off the team roster list published on July 6th confirming that she will not be competing. Some might argue that Richardson’s suspension was the result of careless flouting of rules, and is justifiable. However, the circumstances of Richardson’s personal life surrounding her cannabis use renders her violation of guidelines somewhat more understandable. For example, Richardson attributes much of her recent cannabis use to the recent death of her biological mother, with whom the runner had a strained relationship. Additionally, Richardson was not informed of her mother’s death before a reporter mentioned it during an interview at the trials in Eugene, Oregon. While cannabis is against regulations for Olympic athletes, the combination of losing a parent and being informed of said loss by a stranger might be categorized as an extenuating set of circumstances. In reaction to the backlash she received in the wake of news coverage regarding her suspension, the sprinter tweeted the phrase “I am human” as a request for understanding and humanity amid the controversy. However, although Richardson could easily argue that she was driven to consume cannabis by her grief, the young athlete takes full responsibility for her breach of protocol saying “I want to take responsibility for my actions. I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do, I know what I’m allowed not to do, and I still made that decision.” in a July 2nd interview on The Today Show. In addition to the fact that Richardson was grieving, and doubtlessly under immense stress as she went through the Olympic trials, her suspension is doubly confusing to fans, as Richardson’s marijuana use reportedly took place in Oregon where the plant is legal for recreational use.
While Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension has created a significant amount of controversy due to increasing support for recreational cannabis use, this is certainly not the first time that professional athletes have faced serious consequences for their weed consumption. For example, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was suspended by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) for three months and lost a lucrative sponsorship deal from Kellogg’s after a photo of him hitting a bong surfaced in 2009. What many individuals find shocking about these types of incidents is the fact that the WADA has recently reclassified marijuana as a “substance of abuse.” This classification is doubly surprising due to the WADAs goal of preventing performance-enhancing drug use among athletes. As nearly anyone who has consumed cannabis will attest, weed is unlikely to improve athletic performance on any level. Additionally, the most common mode of drug testing using urine can detect marijuana use for up to 30 days in moderate to heavy consumers. As a result of this, individuals are being punished not only for cannabis use during competitions but for use that could have occurred up to a month before testing. Therefore, one might argue that suspending athletes because of a positive test for THC is an outdated practice at best and puritanical virtue-signaling at worst.
While cannabis consumption has become more acceptable in a variety of circles recently, the way professional athletes are punished for using the increasingly legal plant has not changed. While the average American in legal states is allowed to light up as often as they wish, individuals in athletic fields are unable to indulge for fear of career-destroying suspensions and backlash. In the wake of Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension and exclusion from the Olympics, many Americans are questioning the way weed use is handled in sports, particularly because few people would consider it a substance that augments athletic performance. Additionally, current drug-testing procedures detect cannabis use from up to a month before testing and put casual consumers at risk for consumption that took place legally and outside of working hours. All factors considered Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension and disqualification serve as a reminder that despite recent victories in the legal status of cannabis, there is still plenty of work to be done in abolishing the antiquated guidelines that paint the plant’s use as an illicit act.
Washington Post article about Richardson’s suspension:
Forbes article detailing the situation and Richardson’s response:
Op-ed piece supporting Richardson: