Why does WADA ban marijuana? Making sense of Sha'Carri Richardson's suspension 'a frustrating enterprise'
The source of U.S. sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson's anti-doping rule violation was not a missed drug test or forged hospital records. It was not an anabolic steroid like stanozolol or nandrolone. It was marijuana.
And that left many casual sports fans scratching their heads.
How could Richardson's one month suspension, which the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced Friday, be the result of a substance that is legal in 18 states?
How could the 21-year-old be effectively barred from competing in her primary event — the 100-meter dash — at the Tokyo Olympics, because of a drug that has not been proven to enhance athletic performance?
Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado who studies sports governance, said these are fair questions. And, in his mind, they point to some of the inconsistencies in international anti-doping rules.
"I guess my overall reaction is that for someone trying to make sense of this, it would be a frustrating enterprise," he said. "Because it doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense."
Before understanding why marijuana triggered Richardson's suspension, it's important to understand how anti-doping protocols work.
The World Anti-Doping Agency was created by the International Olympic Committee to essentially help regulate doping in sports. Each year, WADA identifies substances that it believes should be prohibited in accordance with its anti-doping code (more on this later), to prevent cheating and help keep athletes safe.
USADA, the anti-doping arm in the United States, is one of WADA's signatories and has agreed to uphold its rules. So when one of the athletes that USADA is testing (Richardson) returns a positive test for one of WADA's prohibited substances (marijuana), USADA is required to punish the athlete, per the code.
"WADA sets the rules for the world, which all of us — all countries, including the United States — have to follow, whether we like the outcome or not," USADA's chief executive officer Travis Tygart told USA TODAY Sports. "And even in sad and tough cases like this one, where we might take a different approach."
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WADA puts a substance on its prohibited list if it determines that substance meets two of the following three criteria:
► It enhances, or could potentially enhance, an athlete's performance.
► It could pose a health risk for athletes.
► It "violates the spirit of sport."
WADA does not specify which two of those three boxes are checked by a particular substance. But in the case of marijuana, a 2011 academic paper co-authored by WADA's science director offers some explanation.
In the paper, the authors write that athletes who smoke marijuana could endanger theselves or others because of "slower reaction times and poor executive function." They write that marijuana use "is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world." And they indicate that the drug might help athletes focus or relieve the stress of competition, thereby giving them a leg up on the field of play.
"Although much more scientific information is needed ... cannabis can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines," they write.
In contrast, a 2017 review of academic literature on the subject found that the main ingredient in marijuana, THC, "does not enhance aerobic exercise or strength."
Tygart said marijuana's role as a prohibited substance has been debated in anti-doping circles for decades. WADA relaxed its rules on at least one of the drug's derivatives, cannabidiol, in 2019, but THC remains prohibited in competition.
Pielke believes WADA's decision to regulate marijuana is overstep, essentially veering into morality. He pointed out that WADA specifies in its own code that it considers some substances to be prohibited "because they are frequently abused in society outside of the context of sport."
"Whatever one thinks about recreational drugs, what's WADA's business in regulating them, given that we have jurisdictions around the world that have legal frameworks to do exactly that?" he said.
"A lot of attention that could be paid to regulating actual doping drugs gets spent on regulating these morality drugs."
As large swaths of the country have legalized recreational marijuana use over the past decade, some American sports leagues have relaxed their rules or testing protocols, including the NFL and NBA.
Pielke said he wouldn't be surprised if WADA follows suit at some point and removes THC from its prohibited substances list. In the meantime, he said cases like Richardson's – where an athlete received a life-altering sanction for a substance unrelated to her performance – are illustrative of the work that still needs to be done to improve anti-doping rules.
"For most people, anti-doping is something that shows up every four years, with the Olympics, when there's a big scandal," Pielke said. "But once you take a look at it, you realize, behind the curtains, it's not a particularly pretty picture."
Contributing: Christine Brennan
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.