The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has officially decided to keep marijuana on the list of banned substances for international athletes following a scientific review and a determination that cannabis use “violates the spirit of sport.”
Advocates strongly urged WADA to enact a reform after U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from participating in Olympics events due to a positive THC test last year. In response, the organization carried out a review of cannabis as a performance enhancing drug—but the Executive Committee has now decided to maintain the prohibition.
“The question of how THC should be dealt with in a sporting context is not straightforward, WADA Director General Olivier Niggli acknowledged in a press release on Friday. “WADA is aware of the diversity of opinions and perceptions related to this substance around the world, and even within certain countries.”
— WADA (@wada_ama) September 23, 2022
“WADA is also mindful that the few requests for THC’s removal from the Prohibited List are not supported by the experts’ thorough review,” he said. “We are also conscious that the laws of many countries—as well as broad international regulatory laws and policies—support maintaining cannabis on the List at this time.”
Following Richardson’s suspension, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said that the international rules on marijuana “must change,” the White House and President Joe Biden himself signaled that it was time for new policies and congressional lawmakers amplified that message.
But despite that advocacy for reform, WADA said the Executive Committee decided to stay the course. It was first reported that the organization intended to keep the ban in place earlier this month, and that has now been confirmed.
Whether a substance should be banned depends on whether it meets at least two of three criteria WADA uses in its evaluation—including a subjective finding that it “violates the spirit of sport” under its code.
“With respect to the spirit of sport criterion, the [List Expert Advisory Group] consulted with WADA’s Ethics Expert Advisory Group, which continues to consider cannabis use, at this time, to be against the spirit of sport across a range of areas as listed in the Code,” the organization said in its new announcement.
The other two factors that go into WADA’s analysis are whether a drug “has the potential to enhance sport performance” or “represents a health risk to the athlete.”
“WADA plans to continue research in this area in relation with THC’s potential performance enhancing effects, its impact on the health of athletes and also in relation to perceptions of cannabis from athletes, experts and others around the world,” Niggli said.
The agency emphasized that cannabis is prohibited in “competition only,” and the rule is only enforced when an athlete’s THC metabolites exceed 150 nanograms per milliliter in a urine test—a threshold that was increased from just from 15 ng/mL in 2013. WADA said that meant a person would only be subject to penalties if they were frequent consumers or actively impaired.
“Further, the inclusion of the ‘Substance of Abuse’ provision in the Code from 2021 significantly reduced the length of suspension from a potential two (or even four) years previously to as low as one month today for athletes who can establish that the THC use occurred out of competition and was unrelated to sport performance,” WADA said.
A WADA spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal this month that, “to date neither the United States authorities nor the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has requested the removal of cannabis from the Prohibited List.”
But USADA CEO Travis Tygart seemed to dispute that point. He said that, for decades, the organization “has advocated for WADA to change its approach to marijuana so a positive test is not a violation unless it was intentionally used to enhance performance or endangers the health or safety of competitors.”
USADA had previously expressed sympathy for the suspended runner, Richardson, and indicated that it may be time for a reevaluation of the marijuana prohibition—but it later followed up with a statement that went further by explicitly calling for a policy change.
The organization wrote that “President Joe Biden described the way forward best when he said” that the “rules are rules,” but stating that those regulations may need to be reevaluated.
After Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortz (D-NY) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) sent a letter to USADA communicating their interest in reforming WADA’s cannabis policy, a separate group of lawmakers also sent a letter to the group to urge a change.
“We believe that cannabis does not meet the description of scientifically proven risk or harm to the athlete,” those 18 members of Congress wrote, “and the USADA is perpetuating stereotypes and rhetoric fueled by the racist War on Drugs by claiming its usage, in private use and outside of competition, violates the ‘spirit of the sport.’”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) was among the lawmakers who’ve been critical of Richardson’s suspension. He argued last year that it is hypocritical that athletes would be penalized for using marijuana when alcohol use is largely tolerated. And he also said cannabis is only a performance enhancing drug in the context of food eating competitions.
At a separate federal commission hearing on international sports last year, a representative of USADA said in response to questioning by Cohen that the organization is “heartbroken” over Richardson’s case and supports “liberalization” of current bans. He claimed that the body’s hands are tied with respect to enforcing international drug policy, however.
Richardson, for her part, said that she’d feel “blessed and proud” if the attention her case raised would affect reform for other athletes.
WADA has made clear that the U.S. has played a key role in placing marijuana on the list of prohibited substances for international athletes—and it still had a seat at the table if it wanted a policy change.
Richard Pound, who served as the first president of WADA, previously told Marijuana Moment that he supported the scientific review of cannabis and discussed how the U.S. has historically had an outsized influence in matters governing the organization’s international drug code.
Former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki had initially declined to condemn Olympics officials’ sanction on Richardson when asked about the issue last summer, but she later said that the case highlighted the need to “take another look” at the rules on cannabis, especially after the athlete was barred from a second event that fell outside the scope of her original 30-day suspension.
USA Track & Field has similarly said that international policy on cannabis punishments for athletes “should be reevaluated.”
Meanwhile, advocates have broadly embraced internal marijuana policy reforms at other major professional athletic organizations, arguing that they are long overdue especially given the ever-expanding legalization movement.
MLB has been among the more progressive professional sports organizations in the U.S. when it comes to marijuana. The league said in 2020 that players would not be punished for using cannabis while they aren’t working, but they can’t be personally sponsored by a marijuana company or hold investments in the industry.
The NFL’s drug testing policy already changed demonstrably in 2020 as part of a collective bargaining agreement.
NFL players no longer face the possibility of being suspended from games over positive tests for any drug—not just marijuana—under a collective bargaining agreement. Instead, they will face a fine. The threshold for what constitutes a positive THC test was also increased under the deal.
The NBA announced in late 2020 that was extending its policy of not randomly drug testing players for marijuana through the 2021-2022 season. The association said it wouldn’t be subjecting players to random drug testing for THC; however, they will continue to test “for cause” cases where players have histories of substance use.
Students athletes that are part of the NCAA would no longer automatically lose their eligibility to play following a positive marijuana test under rules that are were recommended by a key committee earlier this year.
Marijuana icon Snoop Dogg, who was featured at the Super Bowl halftime show this year where an ad separately aired that indirectly supported legalization, argued that sports leagues need to stop testing players for marijuana and allow to them to use it as an alternative to prescription opioids.