This editorial was originally published July 7 in the Los Angeles Times.
Sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson delights fans with her vivid style, even bolder smile, strength of character and deep and open love of her grandmother. Not to mention that she runs, as she puts it, “a little faster” than the rest of us.
So it was heartbreaking to see this young woman, so full of promise and personality, kept from competing in the Tokyo Games over the use of some marijuana, especially considering that she tested positive just a few days after learning — from a reporter — that her mother had died.
And this took place in Oregon, where marijuana use is legal under state law (if not under federal statutes).
That’s not to say the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which takes its rules from the World Anti-Doping Agency, was wrong to suspend Richardson for one month, the minimum discipline for such an infraction. The prohibition was clear. It’s just that the timing in this case was particularly heart-rending.
But Richardson isn’t playing the pity card.
“I want to take responsibility for my actions,” she told the “Today” show. “I know what I did and what I’m not supposed to do. I know what I’m not allowed to do, and I still made that decision.”
In saying so, she became an even more endearing figure. Imagine a celebrity accepting the consequences for making a mistake.
But let’s not lose sight of the larger picture. The mistake Richardson made shouldn’t be considered a mistake at all. WADA should take marijuana off its list of banned substances and review the rest of its prohibitions. A 2018 paper co-written by WADA’s medical director found no evidence that marijuana is a performance enhancer.
WADA has in the past rationalized its rule by saying that athletes who are competing under the influence “potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.” Let’s get real. They think all that and more isn’t possible for a drunk athlete? Yet in 2018, alcohol was taken off the list of prohibited substances, and one of the founders of WADA has said the marijuana ban had more to do with government attitudes toward the drug than anything else.
WADA isn’t the only arena in which marijuana rules are anachronistic; the U.S. government’s attitude is practically medieval. Marijuana is legal in most states of this country, if you count medicinal use, but the federal government continues to place cannabis in its most restricted category of drugs, up there with heroin.
The issue speaks to a flaw in the world of Olympic sports: the apparent unwillingness of powerful governing agencies to show that their rules are based on fairness and science. It’s time they recognized that it’s no longer enough to just issue edicts from Mt. Olympus.