Olympic media is abuzz today with the news that American track star Sha’Carri Richardson has been suspended from the Olympic team after testing positive for THC, a chemical found in marijuana.
While Richardson’s one-month suspension has raised the profile of the topic, astute swimming fans will know that anti-doping rules regarding marijuana use are far from new – and neither is the controversy around their application.
Here are 3 big things you need to know about marijuana-related doping suspensions in Olympic sports:
#1: THC is Only Banned for In-Competition Tests – And Not For Moral or Legal Reasons
What’s driven most of the buzz around Richardson’s suspension – which will cost her an Olympic berth in the 100-meter individual race, though it’s not clear if she can still remain on the roster for the 4×100 relay – is the disconnect between the act and the punishment. Social media has been incredulous that a drug legalized recreationally in 18 states could cost an athlete her hard-fought Olympic dream.
The incongruency is bound to conjure up images of stodgy officials clutching pearls over drug use. But digging into the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Code paints a different picture.
Marijuana – more specifically, THC – is not blanket-banned for high-level athletes. The substance is only banned from in-competition use, and it’s not banned for moral reasons (drug stigma) or for legal reasons (for states and/or countries where it remains illegal). THC is banned for performance-enhancing reasons.
Some data suggests that THC improves sleep, recovery, and muscle relaxation, while reducing inflammation to reduce aches and pains. Ironically enough, one of the most notable advocates for THC as a performance enhancer is Canadian Olympic snowboard champion Ross Rebagliati, who tested positive after winning the 1998 Olympics and had his gold medal stripped from him, only to later have it reinstated because THC hadn’t yet been added to WADA’s list of banned substances.
Under current rules, Olympic athletes are not prohibited from using marijuana – they’re only prohibited from using it during competition. Testing positive for THC in an out-of-competition test wouldn’t bring about any sort of WADA-mandated suspension. But having THC in your system on race-day does violate WADA rules.
There can still be debate over whether THC actually enhances performance and/or whether it represents enough of a health risk to athletes to warrant a WADA ban. But the general de-stigmatizing of marijuana use isn’t the avenue that’s going to change WADA rules.
Important note: You can receive a TUE, or a therapeutic use exemption, for marijuana. That means that if a doctor prescribes it, and you file the proper paperwork before using it, you’re exempt from a positive test.
#2: Richardson’s Ban Isn’t The First & Controversy Already Abounds
The 21-year-old Richardson has taken full responsibility for her suspension. “I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do, I’m allowed not to do and I still made that decision,” she told NBC’s TODAY. Her positive test came on June 19, the day she won the 100-meter at U.S. Olympic Trials.
THC suspensions aren’t uncommon in Olympic-level sport. In swimming, we’ve seen several high-profile suspensions, including Italian sprinter Andrea Vergani and U.S. National Teamer Tate Jackson. Most of those bans have criticized by fans – but they’ve also never made a big enough impact to start a broader conversation.
While the Olympic ramifications of Richardson’s ban have caused some to criticize what they see as unfair treatment, the specifics of her ban aren’t abnormal for this type of doping violation. One month is the furthest a suspension can be reduced for a positive in-competition THC test. Vergani was suspended three months for his positive test. Back in 2009, Michael Phelps served a three-month suspension when he was photographed inhaling marijuana from a bong – that was not an anti-doping suspension as Phelps was outside of competition, didn’t break any WADA rules, and never tested positive for the substance during his career. Rather, that was a conduct violation, and one made in a very different cultural environment.
There’s still a clear argument to be made that WADA rules on THC use are unfair, or perhaps not backed by solid science. But the application of those rules were not out of the ordinary in this case.
#3: THC Rules Continue To Soften As Public Opinion Shifts
On the flip side, Richardson’s heartbreaking loss of her Olympic 100-meter spot makes a compelling case that too often, the punishment doesn’t fit the violation when it comes to positive THC tests. One reason Richardson’s case has drawn so much public outrage is Richardson’s own personal tragedy behind the positive test.
She said part of the reason she used marijuana was to cope with emotional pain after being blindsided by the news that her biological mother had died. Richardson found out about her mother’s death while participating in an interview.
“I was just thinking it would be a normal interview and then on the interview to hear that information come from a complete stranger, it was definitely triggering, it was nerve shocking because it’s like who are you to tell me that?” Richardson said.
“From there just blinded by emotions, blinded by bad news, blinded by just hiding hurt, honestly for the fact that I can’t hide myself, so at least in some type of way, I was trying to hide my pain.”
Richardson’s story is so compelling – and the public opinion so strongly in her favor – that THC rules are likely to continue shifting. Already, WADA has regularly softened its rules. Richardson would have faced a minimum ban of three-months had her test come in 2020 – WADA allowed bans to be reduced to one-month in the 2021 edition of the WADA Code, and threshold amounts have been shifted to help filter out positive tests where some small amount of THC used outside of competition could stay in an athlete’s system long enough to appear on a test.
In swimming, specifically, the bans carry extra weight because of the International Swimming League’s zero-tolerance doping policy. The ISL (an upstart professional swimming league) has offered a large number of high-level swimmers the opportunity to earn an income from the sport – but the league also doesn’t allow any athletes who have served a suspension of any kind for a doping offense. That means while a positive test for THC will typically only carry a one-month ban, the suspension could effectively be career-ending for post-collegiate swimmers like Jackson, who had previously competed in the league.
Richardson’s case is much the same, where a sanction intended to be minor grows exponentially in significance – and causing sporting officials to rethink the tricky specifics of THC’s performance-enhancing substance classification.