Why is marijuana on WADA’s Olympic Games ban list?
Posted On July 3, 2021
The source of the anti-doping rule violation by US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was not a failed doping test or false hospital records. It was not an anabolic steroid like stanozolol or nandrolone. It was marijuana.
And that has left many casual sports fans scratching their heads.
How could Richardson’s month-long suspension, announced by the US Anti-Doping Agency on Friday, be the result of a legal substance in 18 states?
How the 21-year-old was effectively barred from competing in her main event – the 100 meters – at the Tokyo Olympics, due to a drug that has not been proven to be successful. improves athletic performance?
Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado who studies sports governance, said these are fair questions. And, in his mind, they point to some of the inconsistencies in international anti-doping rules.
“I guess my overall reaction is that for someone trying to figure this out it would be a frustrating endeavor,” he said. “Because that doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense.”
Before understanding why marijuana triggered Richardson’s suspension, it’s important to understand how anti-doping protocols work.
The World Anti-Doping Agency was created by the International Olympic Committee to primarily help regulate doping in sport. Each year, WADA identifies substances that it believes should be banned under its anti-doping code (more on this later), in order to prevent cheating and help keep athletes safe.
USADA, the anti-doping arm in the United States, is one of the signatories to WADA and has agreed to abide by its rules. So when one of the athletes tested by USADA (Richardson) returns a positive test for one of WADA’s banned substances (marijuana), USADA is required to punish the athlete, according to code.
“WADA sets the rules for the world, which all of us – all countries, including the United States – must follow, whether we like the outcome or not,” USADA Chief Executive Officer Travis Tygart said, at USA TODAY Sports. “And even in sad and difficult cases like this, where we might take a different approach.”
NOTICE:Richardson’s marijuana ban, another example of Olympic hypocrisy
HUNTING GOLD: Sign up for the latest news as Team USA heads to Tokyo
WADA places a substance on its list of prohibited substances if it determines that the substance meets two of the following three criteria:
► It improves, or could potentially improve, the performance of an athlete.
► This could present a risk to the health of the athletes.
► It “violates the spirit of the sport”.
WADA does not specify which two of these three boxes are checked by a particular substance. But in the case of marijuana, a 2011 academic article co-authored by WADA’s scientific director offers some explanation.
In the article, the authors write that athletes who smoke marijuana could endanger themselves or others due to “slower reaction times and poor executive function.” They write that the use of marijuana “is not compatible with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world”. And they say the drug could help athletes focus or relieve the stress of competition, giving them a head start on the playing field.
“Although much more scientific information is needed … cannabis can improve the performance of certain athletes and sports disciplines,” they write.
In contrast, a 2017 academic literature review on the subject found that the main ingredient in marijuana, THC, “does not improve aerobic exercise or strength.”
Tygart said the role of marijuana as a banned substance has been debated in anti-doping circles for decades. WADA relaxed its rules on at least one derivative of the drug, cannabidiol, in 2019, but THC remains banned in competition.
Pielke believes that WADA’s decision to regulate marijuana is being overridden, essentially veering in morality. He pointed out that WADA specifies in its own code that it considers certain substances as prohibited “because they are frequently the subject of abuse in society outside the context of sport”.
“Whatever you think of recreational drugs, what’s WADA’s business in regulating them, given that we have jurisdictions around the world that have legal frameworks to do just that?” he said.
“Much of the attention that could be given to the regulation of actual doping drugs is devoted to the regulation of these moral drugs.”
While large swathes of the country have legalized recreational marijuana use over the past decade, some American sports leagues have relaxed their rules or testing protocols, including the NFL and NBA.
Pielke said he wouldn’t be surprised if WADA at some point followed suit and removed THC from its list of banned substances. In the meantime, he said cases like Richardson’s – where an athlete received a life-changing sanction for a substance unrelated to her performance – illustrate the work that remains to be done to improve anti-doping rules.
“For most people, anti-doping is something that pops up every four years, with the Olympics, when there’s a big scandal,” Pielke said. “But once you look at it, you realize, behind the curtains, it’s not a particularly pretty picture.”