The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) seems poised to keep marijuana on the list of banned substances for athletes, despite a vociferous push for reform following the Olympics suspension of U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson over a positive cannabis test last year and the global body saying it would conduct a review of the drug’s status.
Amid the fallout from the suspension, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said that the international rules “must change,” the White House and President Joe Biden himself signaled that it was time for new policies and congressional lawmakers amplified that message.
However, a spokesperson for WADA told The Wall Street Journal in a story published on Monday 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.”
That lack of a formalized request seems to have helped shaped the draft 2023 WADA Prohibited List, details of which were released by representatives of the Netherlands. That country had advocated for removing marijuana altogether as a banned substance, arguing that it is not a performance enhancing drug. The draft rules are expected to be finalized later this month.
USADA CEO Travis Tygart seemed to push back on the idea that the American body did not encourage change, telling the Journal 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.”
“For almost a decade, USADA 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.” – Travis T. Tygarthttps://t.co/xlWKU99yLj
— USADA (@usantidoping) September 12, 2022
That nuance might help explain the seeming messaging disconnect, as it appears USADA still wanted to keep the door open to some form of penalization for athletes if their use of cannabis was “intentionally” for performance enhancing purposes—a standard that might be difficult to enforce.
Richard Pound, who served as the first president of WADA, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday he thinks “maybe some sober second thought went into it,” referring to the seeming disconnect between what U.S. officials and USADA said last year about the need for reform and the apparent decision not to recommend a full removal of cannabis from the list.
“This is probably not a ditch in which [they] want to die,” he said. “I’m neither surprised nor unsurprised.”
However, Pound pointed out that “there are thousands and thousands of Americans in jail as we speak for a mere possession of marijuana, so I was kind of surprised that, at the highest levels in the country, [officials were suggesting to] remove the ban in its entirety” on the global athletic stage.
Dutch officials—including those representing the governmental Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, Netherlands Olympic Committee and Doping Authority Netherlands—said plainly in response to the proposed continuation of the cannabis ban that “we do not agree with the decision.”
“In our view cannabinoids should not be part of the anti-doping program,” they wrote. “Cannabinoids most likely have a negative impact on athletic performance. The current scientific review does not change this view.”
WADA, for its part, said that the draft 2023 banned substances list prepared by its Prohibited List Expert Advisory Group is “still under consideration.”
“WADA’s Executive Committee will be asked to approve the final version of the List during its 23 September meeting, with the List itself being published on or before 1 October and coming into force on 1 January,” a spokesperson told the Journal.
WADA first announced in September 2021 that it would be conducting a scientific review of marijuana to determine whether it should continue an international ban on cannabis use by athletes.
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.
Pound 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.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.