“I am human.”
That’s the tweet Sha’Carri Richardson, a 21-year-old American track and field sprinter known as the “fastest woman in the world,” left us with on the morning of Thursday, July 1. The tweet preceded news that set the internet aflame: Richardson will not run in the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended her after testing positive for THC.
I am human— Sha’Carri Richardson (@itskerrii) July 1, 2021
In an exclusive interview on the Today Show, Richardson owned up to consuming cannabis and said the reason was to cope with losing her mother one week before the Olympic trials. “Finding out something like that, something I would say was probably one of the biggest things that impacted me in my life, my relationship with my mother, that definitely was very heavy,” Richardson said. “To put on a face, to have to go in front of the world, to hide my pain. Who am I to tell you how to cope when you’re dealing with a struggle you’ve never experienced before? Dealing with my mental health — just with that pressure in itself.”
Anyone who enjoys consuming cannabis should be enraged by the IOC's decision to prevent a top-performing athlete from competing in the Olympics over weed. Once again, we are watching an archaic institution rooted in Drug War ideology inflict significant harm on someone. A Black woman, no less. Should we be surprised? No — because who else would it be?
But cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug! But she knew the rules! But pot is a drug of abuse! Weed is illegal! My response to any of these Reefer Madness arguments is: Shut the fuck up. These rebuttals are a cop-out. They’re dismissive, flat-out wrong, and leave no room to explore the deeper issues of this situation. Guess why? Avoidance does nothing, except hinder one’s ability to think critically. You can’t question the rules that uphold a system in need of reform if you’re heedlessly supporting the status quo.
As of July 12, the USADA made a statement saying that it wants more flexible rules for athletes who test positive for cannabis. This statement came after reports of White House officials wanting to meet with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to discuss easing drug testing restrictions. But, easing restrictions isn’t enough (which we’ll get into momentarily). The IOC, WADA, and USADA need to remove cannabis altogether from the list of prohibited substances. CBD, a cannabinoid known for its anti-inflammatory properties, was removed from the list of forbidden substances in 2019, while THC remains banned outright. Does anyone else find discriminating against plant compounds completely absurd?
Richardson’s suspension is a crushing reminder that the current “legalization” frameworks only regulate cannabis — they don’t make the plant fully legal, let alone legal for all people (such as athletes, federal employees, etc). This situation also shows us that weed is still thought of within the context of “drug abuse” on a global and institutional level. Luckily, Richardson is young enough to get her Olympic debut in four years. But she’s not coming out of this unscathed and here's why.
1. Cannabis Is NOT a Performance-Enhancing Drug
Since the Drug War’s inception, the narrative around pot has always been that it makes people dumb, slow, lazy, and incoherent. So it’s hilarious that we’re seeing the polar opposite argument being made about cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug. Gaslighting, much?
“First it was that cannabis created slackers and made people dysfunctional, and now they’re saying that you can’t use it because it makes you too functional — it enhances your health and sports ability,” said Ed Rosenthal, legendary cannabis cultivator, activist, and author of the Marijuana Grower’s Handbook, to MERRY JANE in a phone interview. “So, which one is it? The truth is that cannabis users have always been discriminated against. That's what we are seeing now.”
According to WADA, a substance is banned if it meets two of three of the following criteria: 1) It creates a potential to enhance performance; 2) it poses a risk to athletes’ health; and 3) it violates the spirit of sport. In 2011, authors associated with WADA published a paper through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — a federally funded medical research agency that’s notoriously anti-cannabis — declaring that all cannabinoids meet all three criteria for a banned substance.
NIH and WADA tailor cannabis to fit these benchmarks with flimsy logic, however. Cannabis Health points out that the authors say weed is dangerous to use during competition because it makes reaction time slower, promotes risky-decision making, and poor executive function, ultimately putting the athlete and other athletes in danger. But, in the section about performance enhancement, the authors suggest that the risky-decision making considered dangerous to one’s health also gives athletes an advantage in competition. The authors report that cannabis “increased impulsive responses leading to more risk-taking behavior, but without affecting decision making,” therefore enhancing performance. It doesn’t take a reading comprehension wiz to smell the bullshit beneath these confusing inconsistencies.
If you’ve ever smoked weed and done yoga or worked out, then you know how fluidly cannabis meshes with physical activity. That said, cannabis does not give athletes a physical edge in competition the way anabolic steroids do (in fact, research suggests cannabis can actually impede muscle growth). People don’t bulk up from smoking weed. It also doesn’t jack you up like, say, caffeine, nor does it give you lasting endurance like electrolytes — all of which are currently “legal” in Olympic play.
Weed can help with pre-competition anxiety and promote focus, however, which can help people connect with their bodies and get into flow state. But cannabis alone doesn’t give people superhuman powers to level up in ways they can’t achieve without it. Pot also doesn’t manufacture a mindset that speeds up, slows down, or otherwise upgrades an athlete’s psychological performance.
“Cannabis is not a performance enhancer at all,” said Kyle Turley, former NFL player for the New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Rams, and Kansas City Chiefs, to MERRY JANE in a phone interview. Turley regularly uses cannabis to treat neurological issues, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a fatal brain disease he incurred from years of playing pro-football. He also credits cannabis for saving his life from suicide, a side effect of the heavy pharmaceuticals he was prescribed. “The science speaks to [cannabis] putting the human body into homeostasis, which is another word for balance. You are at your best [when using cannabis] as an athlete, and nothing more. The plant also can’t be compared to a synthetic drug or additive.”
Furthermore, banning all cannabinoids makes no sense. The human body naturally produces cannabinoids, known as endocannabinoids, such as 2-AG and anandamide. If all cannabinoids are “dangerous performance enhancers,” as WADA claims, then no one should qualify for the Olympics, period.
But, WADA raised the threshold for THC in drug tests in 2013 from 15 nanograms per milliliter of blood — an amount that can be produced by a body’s natural production of cannabinoids — to 150 nanograms per milliliter of blood — an amount typically triggered only after consuming the plant. So the IOC and WADA have technically already eased restrictions. And yet, here we are: Watching a young (Black) woman’s Olympic dreams whirl down the drain because she tested higher than the increased amount of permitted THC. This should be when the IOC stops anti-doping organizations from testing for weed altogether.
“The IOC has set a standard for increasing THC use in sports, which has resonated throughout sports, including in the NFL,” Turley said. “They have muddied the water and put the ball in motion for the increase of THC allowance. Now should be their time to educate themselves about the benefits of cannabis for athletes and remove cannabis from the list of prohibited substances or raise the threshold of THC to an amount no one will ever test positive for.”
2. Drug Testing for Weed Is Inherently Flawed
When the news dropped about Richardson’s suspension, the first thing that came to mind was that drug tests, specifically for THC, are faulty and often inaccurate. For one, drug testing for weed doesn’t tell you when someone consumed the plant. That's why many weed-DUI cases are dismissed in court: Technology currently doesn’t exist to show whether someone is stoned at the time of testing.
Moreover, THC binds to a body's fat cells. That's why it can linger in a person’s system for weeks — months, even — after consumption. Richardson’s positive test doesn’t tell us much other than she consumed cannabis at some point semi-recently. Therefore, it’s inaccurate to assume she’s using it during a window of competition.
According to official anti-doping rules, cannabis use is only prohibited “in-competition,” which is defined as “a period commencing at 11:59 pm on the day before a competition in which the athlete is scheduled to compete through the end of such competition and the sample collection process related to such competition.” In other words, athletes can’t use cannabis on the day of their event.
This rule would potentially be fairer if we had drug testing technology that showed when people consumed cannabis. Unfortunately, any athlete who consumes marijuana within an eight-week window of a drug test could produce THC metabolites. Under the IOC’s current drug testing regime, that puts dozens of other athletes at risk of career-halting suspensions.
“What are we really testing for when we’re talking about drug tests?” said Kyle Turley. “This is all politics. It makes no sense. We need to start testing for the drugs that are killing people, not cannabis. It’s so outdated.”
Richardson said she ingested cannabis to cope with a family death one week before the Olympic trials. If drug tests could accurately pinpoint when a person consumed cannabis, Richardson would theoretically still be able to compete.
The notion that weed is a problematic “drug” is rooted in racism. It’s insane that Team USA would disqualify one of this country’s most talented athletes over thinking that’s rooted in hatred. It’s something they should be ashamed of. Also if weed made you fast, I’d be FloJo. https://t.co/swDLNoVcV3— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) July 2, 2021
3. The Olympics Are Just Another a Racist Institution
Are you surprised? Richardson’s suspension is an effect of an outdated drug regime that outlawed cannabis and used it as a tool (read: weapon) to incarcerate Black and Brown people. And while the Drug War has failed in its superficial objective to stop illegal drug sales, it’s been massively successful in locking people up. Mandated drug tests are predatory because they corner people in the system and trap them. Drug tests would not have power, then, if it weren't for the Drug War.
Further, cannabis is a prohibited substance for many professional and Olympic athletes because of the War on Drugs, which was designed to be a war on minorities from the start. Therefore, Richardson’s suspension is a result of racially motivated laws. The rule, which is a part of a larger system, is rooted in racism.
While reports don't suggest Richardson was harassed by anti-doping agencies, it has happened in the past to other athletes. For instance, the IOC and USADA essentially used drug testing as a weapon against Florence Griffith Joyner, the 100- and 200-meter sprinter famously known as “FloJo.” She was singled out in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, and drug tested 11 times. Rumors swirled about her use of performance enhancers because she was considerably faster than her competition, despite never failing a single drug test. To this day, people (who are more conspiracy theorists than journalists) say she died from drug use, despite the fact her autopsy shows she suffocated during an epileptic seizure triggered by a congenital vascular abnormality. Sounds like FloJo could have benefitted from the anticonvulsant properties of cannabis — too bad it was never safe for her to use the plant because of drug testing.
The criminalization and banning of cannabis is an instrument of racist and colonial policy.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 2, 2021
The IOC should reconsider its suspension of Ms. Richardson and any athletes penalized for cannabis use. This ruling along w/ IOC denial of swim caps for natural hair is deeply troubling. https://t.co/Ao1Yu8Ax9G
Serena Williams, the iconic tennis player and Olympic gold medal winner, was also hassled by the USADA. She was drug tested five times in 2018 — one of which involved an anti-doping agent entering her home while she wasn’t there and refusing to leave, according to the now-defunct Deadspin. But 2018 is well outside the window of competition, considering the previous summer Olympics was in 2016. Although a random drug test or two during off-season is normal, Williams was tested more than twice the amount of other lady tennis players — including Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Daniel Collins, and others — that year, according to the USADA's database. Over Williams’ 23-year career, however, she never failed a drug test. Her camp made a statement to the press that the USADA was targeting her, calling the relentless drug testing “invasive” to athletes’ lives.
Of course, we’ve seen non-Black athletes get drug tested and screwed over for weed, too, like Michael Phelps and Ross Rebagliati. But the details of their respective circumstances are much different than Richardsons. Also, to be clear, while drug testing is inherently flawed, it's not necessarily the act of testing that’s the issue — we all know it’s a requirement for athletes to participate in the Olympic Games. It’s the history of the IOC, WADA, and USADA’s predatory behavior with incessant drug tests — a weapon of the racist War on Drugs — that’s problematic.
Other examples of blatant discrimination demonstrated by the IOC include Namibia's Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi who were disqualified from competing in the 400-meter race in the upcoming Olympic Games because World Athletics, the international governing body for running, deemed them ineligible for female classification. They both produced urine samples with higher levels of testosterone than World Athletics says is permissible for a woman. Their punishments still remain in effect, despite the IOC releasing a statement saying women sometimes have “naturally higher testosterone levels.” In other words, Mboma and Masilingi are being punished for a natural bodily occurrence.
It doesn’t stop there, either. At the time of this writing, Olympic swimmers are prohibited from using a SoulCap, or swim caps designed for natural Black hair, during competition. (It should be noted, however, that the IOC may reconsider this ban.) The International Swimming Federation said the SoulCap didn’t fit “the natural form of the head” and to their “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, nor require … caps of such size and configuration.” Toks Ahmed, SoulCap's founder, told Vogue the cap is the exact same shape as standard swim caps. It’s just larger to accommodate long, voluminous, or textured hair.
All of this is abhorrent. While some of you will undoubtedly bitch about how drug testing Black women incessantly isn’t predatory — despite the history of the War on Drugs and all the forms its abuse takes — determining that African women are “ineligible for female classification” and banning swim caps designed for natural Black hair are slap-you-across-the-face problematic. Suspending Sha’Carri Richardson due to antiquated rules founded on the (racist) War on Drugs is also just as unsettling. All of this stands as evidence that the IOC, WADA, and the USADA need to formulate completely new rules — ones that don't discriminate and are based on actual science.
I think we can all agree on that.