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White House Declines To Defend Runner Suspended From Olympics Over Marijuana Test, While Lawmakers Step Up



The White House on Friday declined to condemn a U.S. Olympics panel for suspending a famed sprinter over a positive test for marijuana, adding another level of frustration for advocates who have sharply criticized the administration for firing its own staffers over cannabis use. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of members of Congress spoke out against the penalty on the athlete.

Sha’Carri Richardson, known as the fastest woman in America, was set to compete in the Tokyo Olympics this month before testing positive for THC in violation of United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) policy. The runner admitted to consuming cannabis in Oregon, where marijuana is legal for adult use, after learning about the death of her biological mother during a press interview.

Asked whether President Joe Biden supports the one-month suspension or would like to see a reversal to allow the athlete to participate, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said “this was an independent decision made by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and not a decision that would be made by the U.S. government.”

Psaki did go on to note that Richardson “is an inspiring young woman who has gone through a lot personally—and she also happens to be one of the fastest women in the world.”

And that woman will miss a key Olympics event given the one-month suspension; however, the punishment is set to end by the time she would potentially participate in another race if she remains on the U.S. team following the cannabis controversy.

“That’s an important part of the story as well,” Psaki said, “so this is an independent decision by the the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, but I also felt it was important to note, who she is and her history.”

But while the press secretary seemed to empathize with the runner and acknowledge her talent, she didn’t directly address the question about where President Joe Biden stands and gave a notable deferential response that pitted full responsibility on the country’s athletic governing body.

For advocates, the administration’s declining to take a stand in defense of the sprinter is another disappointment and signals again that it is unwilling to stand up for reform, even in unique circumstances like Richardson’s case.

And at the same time that it’s choosing not to explicitly criticize the sports-related sanction, the administration has come under fire this year for terminating or otherwise punishing staffers who were honest about their past cannabis use as part of the background check process.

Psaki subsequently said that nobody in the White House was fired for “marijuana usage from years ago,” nor has anyone been terminated “due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.” However, she’s consistently declined to speak to the extent to which staff have been suspended or placed in a remote work program because they were honest about their history with marijuana on a federal form that’s part of the background check process.

It isn’t just activists who are condemning Richardson’s suspension. Multiple members of Congress and federal candidates have slammed the agency over the move.

Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), for example, wrote a letter to USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency expressing “dismay” at the punishment.

“The ban on marijuana is a significant and unnecessary burden on athletes’ civil liberties,” the two lawmakers, who are respectively the chair and vice-chair of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, wrote.

“The divergent treatment of recreational alcohol and marijuana use reflects obsolete stereotypes about cannabis products and a profound misunderstanding of the relative risks of both substances,” they said, noting that major sports leagues such as the NFL, MLB and NBA are making moves to scale back or eliminate cannabis punishments for players.

“We are also concerned that the continued prohibition of marijuana while your organizations allow recreational use of alcohol and other drugs reflects anti-drug laws and policies that have historically targeted Black and Brown communities while largely condoning drug use in white communities,” they said.

A number of other lawmakers criticized the suspension in social media posts:

Meanwhile, a powerful congressional committee recently a report earlier this week that urges federal agencies to reconsider policies that result in the firing of employees who use marijuana legally in accordance with state law.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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