The fastest woman in the world might just be 21-year-old sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, but Richardson tested positive for marijuana during the Olympic trials last week and so we may not get the chance to find out in Tokyo. Richardson’s suspension has set news outlets alight with commentary as fiery as her now-trademark mane of hair.
Her Flo Jo-esque nail art and flamboyant style have captured the attention of leagues of fans during her competitions, but what Richardson is best known for is the incredible discipline, charisma, and speed that propelled her from challenging circumstances into track stardom. She became an overnight sensation at the Olympic trials last month, where she won the 100-meter dash an incredible burst before the finish line.
The results of Richardson’s race, obtained on June 19, have been disqualified because of her positive drug test by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which announced that she will be granted the minimum penalty of a one-month suspension. Due to the fact that Richardson’s 100-meter win at the trials has been disqualified, she can no longer compete in the 100-meter race at the Olympics. This decision has sparked outrage and debate over the Anti-Doping Agency’s decision and its continued designation of marijuana as a performance-enhancing drug. (Marijuana’s utility for stress relief, recovery, and calm still qualifies it as “performance enhancing” by agency standards.) The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which handed down the decision to suspend Richardson, uses three criteria to determine which drugs athletes are prohibited from using. In a paper published in Sports Medicine, the WADA criteria that keep cannabis on the list are explained as follows:
- “Athletes who smoke cannabis or Spice in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk-taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.”
- “Based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance-enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.”
- “Use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world”.
The WADA criteria have received a lot of push back even from USADA itself, which withheld annual dues from WADA this year in protest of its inability to change more quickly in the face of changing times and compelling evidence of its necessity. The WADA criteria also do not satisfy Richardson’s supporters and those who claim that this might just be yet another instance of race-based discrimination and a demonstration of the disproportionate impact of the War on Drugs on people of color. Women Grow, an organization focused on supporting female leadership in the cannabis industry, issued a statement in support of Sha’Carri Richardson, calling for the decriminalization of cannabis in sports and declaring that the athlete should not be suspended but supported. “She chose a plant over pills—what a brilliant choice of a holistic alternative.”
Jushi Holdings, Inc., a vertically integrated, multi-state cannabis operator, issued a statement as well, recalling that in 2020 the UN, on the recommendation of the World Health Organization, “recognized the beneficial properties of cannabis when it removed the substance from the most restrictive global scheduling category”. Jushi’s statement further affirmed that cannabis is “not recognized as able to enhance or otherwise impact physical performance” and that the decision to suspend Richardson was not only unjust, but “a result that perpetuates the inequities cannabis prohibition has fueled over the course of decades.”
“Let Her Run” has become the rallying cry behind the movement to allow Richardson to compete in the Olympics and pressure WADA and USADA to reconsider their designation of marijuana as a performance-enhancing drug. The steady march towards legalization in all states and the fact that Richardson consumed the marijuana in Oregon, where it is legal to do so, gives weight to the argument to allow Richardson her Olympic moment. NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri echoed these sentiments in his own statement. “To use this as a rationale for denying this athlete, who is otherwise competing at the top of her sport, the ability to represent the United States at the Tokyo Olympics should be an unacceptable outcome in this situation. Let Richardson race.”
Though Richardson has been removed from the Olympic team for the 100-meter race, there is a small chance that she could be selected as a member for the women’s 100-meter relay race in Tokyo since the WADA ban will end before the relay takes place. This would be at the discretion of the Olympic Committee and USA Track and Field. Richardson is not counting on being allowed to run in the relay, however, nor is she letting it dash her hopes for making her mark in track and field in the future. “I still have games in me,” she told Savannah Guthrie in an interview for television’s “Today”. “I’ll be back and ready to compete.”