In the wake of sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension from the Tokyo Olympics, a much-needed debate over how cannabis fits into drug testing procedures has dominated the national discourse over the past two weeks. But a recent exchange between the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) has shed light on how these draconian rules are still in effect in 2021 — and nobody wants to take credit for it.
On Friday, USADA president Travis Tygart wrote a letter to US Congresswoman Jamie Raskin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in response to their concerns that Richardson was unfairly punished. “Ms. Richardson’s exclusion from the Tokyo Olympic Games is a heartbreaking situation and that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules concerning marijuana must change,” the letter stated.
The letter went on to say that the USADA “has advocated for more flexible and fair rules to address the use of marijuana by athletes,” and that the organization supports blood or oral testing methods rather than urine tests like that which was given to Richardson. Like President Biden, Tygart concluded by saying that the organization was “proud” of Richardson for her reasoned response to the suspension. Ultimately, the sentiment of the letter placed the blame on WADA.
Several lawmakers have since expressed hope that the USADA would reverse their decision on Richardson’s suspension.
But WADA immediately contested, saying that the USADA has continued to play an active role in maintaining harsh punishments for athletes who use cannabis.
"Since 2004, and as recently as 2021, USADA has without exception insisted that cannabis should remain on the (banned) list,” WADA stated.
“An important fact for the US Congress to know about this process is that there are more representatives from the United States advising WADA on these scientific issues than from any other nation in the world,” the organization continued in a letter. “These decisions are not reached in a vacuum.”
And WADA supplied receipts, sharing that in 2014 WADA’s health, medical, and research committee proposed raising “the threshold for a positive test to make the rule more liberal for athletes using marijuana.” WADA holds that USADA turned down the prospective change, worrying that it would be akin to raising the prohibition on competition-day cannabis use.
The USADA’s response to Reuters in light of that admission was that they take exception, again, to the form of the test. "Oral fluids or a blood test is actually a better matrix to determine use on the day of the competition and to not capture use days before the competition,” said the USADA.
Richardson tested positive for having used cannabis during the US Olympic Track and Field trials, where she delivered a dominant 10.72-second performance in the 100-meter dash, positioning her as a favorite heading into the Olympics. The 21-year-old readily admitted to having inhaled cannabis, explaining that she was dealing with grief over the death of her mother.
The decision to remove Richardson from Olympic competition for consuming cannabis took place at a time during which many policy decisions have penalized Black women athletes, from a ban on swim caps made to fit natural Black hair and the policing of two African sprinters’ testosterone levels as a basis for their ineligibility to compete.