A positive marijuana test cost star U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson a shot at a key Olympic race this month. And now the nation’s governing body on track and field is saying international policy on cannabis punishments athletes “should be reevaluated.”
The new statement from USA Track & Field (USATF) comes shortly after Team USA declined to place Richardson in another event, the 4×100 relay, that would have fallen outside of the 30-day probationary period imposed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
It’s a move that advocates view as unnecessarily punitive, and USATF seems to agree that policies need to change, even if it’s currently unwilling to amend its own internal rules to make an exception in this case.
“First and foremost, we are incredibly sympathetic toward Sha’Carri Richardson’s extenuating circumstances and strongly applaud her accountability—and will offer her our continued support both on and off the track,” USATF said. “While USATF fully agrees that the merit of the World Anti-Doping Agency rules related to THC should be reevaluated, it would be detrimental to the integrity of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field if USATF amended its policies following competition, only weeks before the Olympic Games.”
While that won’t change circumstances for Richardson—who admitted to using cannabis in a legal state after learning about the death of her biological mother—it’s a significant statement that echoes calls from fans, advocates and lawmakers alike who have condemned the suspension.
“All USATF athletes are equally aware of and must adhere to the current anti-doping code, and our credibility as the National Governing Body would be lost if rules were only enforced under certain circumstances,” USATF said. “So while our heartfelt understanding lies with Sha’Carri, we must also maintain fairness for all of the athletes who attempted to realize their dreams by securing a place on the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team.”
In a sense, the governing body is reflecting a position that President Joe Biden articulated on Saturday. He said that while “rules are rules,” he also suggested that there’s an open question about whether “they should remain the rules.” And that’s notable for a president who has maintained an opposition to adult-use legalization.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki previously declined to condemn Olympics officials’ sanction on Richardson when asked about the issue at a briefing with reporters.
A bipartisan group of members of Congress slammed Richardson’s punishment last week, with leaders of a key House subcommittee sending a scathing letter to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), urging the bodies to ”strike a blow for civil liberties and civil rights by reversing this course you are on.”
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.
NFL’s drug testing policy changed demonstrably last year as part of a collective bargaining agreement, for example. Under the policy, NFL players will not face the possibility of being suspended from games over positive tests for any drug—not just marijuana.
In a similar vein, the MLB decided in 2019 to remove cannabis from the league’s list of banned substances. Baseball players can consume marijuana without risk of discipline, but officials clarified last year that they can’t work while under the influence and can’t enter into sponsorship contracts with cannabis businesses, at least for the time being.
Meanwhile, a temporary NBA policy not to randomly drug test players for marijuana amid the coronavirus pandemic may soon become permanent, the league’s top official said in December. Rather than mandate blanket tests, Commissioner Adam Silver said the league would be reaching out to players who show signs of problematic dependency, not those who are “using marijuana casually.”
For what it’s worth, a new poll from YouGov found that women are notably more likely to oppose Richardson’s suspension than men are.
Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.