Sha’Carri Richardson Olympics Ban: Another Marijuana Casualty

While we are heartbroken, the USOPC is steadfast in its commitment to clean competition, and it supports the anti-doping code. A positive test for any banned substance comes with consequences…” ~ the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee

In a shocking turn of events, superstar sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson has failed a drug test after testing positive for marijuana, an internationally banned substance. As a result, she has been suspended from competition for 30 days and will miss the 2021 Olympics. This is a major blow to the U.S. Team because Richardson is one of the fastest women of all time and was the odds-on favorite for the 100-meter gold medal at the upcoming Tokyo Games.

Because the 21-year-old Richardson is such a well-known athlete, there has been a tremendous public outcry since the announcement. Some say that the suspension is justified, since Richardson knowingly violated the rules, while others argue that she should not have been penalized for “only” smoking pot. Many people do not understand why cannabis is even a banned substance in the first place.

Finally, quite apart from the rules themselves is the issue of WHY Richardson says she smoked marijuana because it opens a discussion about mental health.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these issues.

What are the Official Rules about Amateur Athletes and Marijuana?

doping signThe rules are clear, but this is heartbreaking on many levels; hopefully, her acceptance of responsibility and apology will be an important example to us all that we can successfully overcome our regrettable decisions, despite the costly consequences of this one to her.” ~ Travis T. Tygart, USADA CEO

Richardson is bound by the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which tests for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Specifically, the rule reads:

All natural and synthetic cannabinoids are prohibited, e.g.

  • In cannabis (hashish, marijuana) and cannabis products
  • Natural and synthetic tetrahydrocannabinol (THCs)
  • Synthetic cannabinoids that mimic the effects of THC

The only exception to the banned substance list is for cannabidiol, which may provide some benefits for certain medical conditions. Also known as CBD, it is the second-most prevalent active component found in cannabis. Unlike THC, CBD does not get the user high.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency will consider Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) for medical marijuana for athletes suffering from neuropathic pain. Importantly, the specific marijuana or cannabinoid-containing medication used must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration AND meet international guidelines for TUEs.

Finally, marijuana is only banned during the “in-competition” time period. That is a very narrow window, defined as 11:59 PM the day before competing until the competition is concluded. This means that athletes who use marijuana out-of-competition may have up to 150 nanograms per milliliter of THC before testing positive.

This is in itself far different from two Olympic Games ago. During the 2012 London Olympics, the threshold was just 15 nanograms per milliliter.

Why is Marijuana Prohibited in Amateur Sports?

According to the USADA, for a substance to be added to the Prohibited List, it must meet two of the three inclusion criteria:

  • A. It poses a health risk to athletes.
  • B. It has the potential to enhance performance.
  • C. It violates the spirit of sport.

The WADA contends that marijuana meets at least two of those standards. Furthermore, under the 2021 World Anti-Doping Code, THC is classified as a “Substance of Abuse” because it is most commonly used outside the context of sports.

Are the Anti-Doping Agencies Right?

Let’s take a closer look at each benchmark.

FIRST, does marijuana pose a health risk to athletes?

Of this claim, there is little doubt. Numerous studies have been conducted, and the evidence is overwhelming that marijuana is associated with many risks to the user’s physical and mental well-being. Some conditions that are caused or worsened by cannabis use include:

SECOND, does marijuana enhance athletic performance?

The jury is still out on this particular side-effect.

On one hand, marijuana has been shown to interfere with visual processing, slow reaction time, alter perception, and impair the ability to focus. Obviously, that means that athletes in certain sports, especially those that involve hand-eye coordination, would perform worse when using marijuana, not better.

But on the other hand, it is possible that marijuana could unfairly boost the performance of some track and field competitors. For example, the drug’s pain-numbing effects could help them get through a particularly grueling training regimen.

Of special relevance to Sha’Carri Richardson’s sprinting events, a 1978 study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found that inhaled THC is a bronchodilator that increases the user’s expiratory rate and volume. Moreover, the increase is dose-related.

THIRD, does using marijuana violate the spirit of sport?

The WADA Ethics Panel defines the “spirit of sports” in Guiding Values in Sports and Anti-Doping. Far from being vague, their definition lists several intrinsic values, a number of which are directly relevant to this specific situation.

In part, the document reads, “The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind, and is reflected in values we find in and through sport, including Ethics, fairplay and honesty; health; excellence in performance; character and education; fun and joy; teamwork; dedication and commitment; respect for rules and laws; respect for self and other Participants; courage; community and solidarity.

Which of these apply here?

  • Honesty – Richardson’s use of marijuana only became known because of a positive drug test. Of special relevance, one of the signs that substance use has become abuse is when the person has to hide their use.
  • Health – (See Above)
  • Respect for Rules and Law – Richardson admits that she was fully aware of the USADA and WADA rules concerning marijuana use.

There is no report that Richardson applied for a TUE, that she was struggling with neuropathic pain, or even that she was using prescribed medical marijuana. It is also important to note that recreational marijuana is not legal in Louisiana, where Richardson goes to college.

The Wrong Remedy

In fact, Richardson herself admits that she was self-medicating with marijuana in an attempt to cope with the emotional pain of recently losing her biological mother, just one week before her qualifying race.

Even worse, Richardson, who was raised by her grandmother, was given the unexpected news by a reporter. “I was just thinking it would be a normal interview. But to hear that information coming from a complete stranger, it was definitely triggering, it was definitely nerve shocking,” Richardson explained. “I know I can’t hide myself, so… in some kind of way, I was trying to hide my pain.

But is marijuana really an effective treatment for the depression that one might experience after losing a family member?

It appears not.

There is a long-established link between regular marijuana use and the onset or worsening of serious psychiatric disorders. Of specific concern for Sha’Carri Richardson, however, is a 2008 U.S. Justice Department report determining that young people who use marijuana once a week or more are at doubled risk of depression. Young women are particularly vulnerable because they are three times as likely as young men to struggle with depression. According to the report, young females “who smoke marijuana daily are significantly more likely to develop symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

The earlier findings dovetail alarmingly with new research that found that 53% of depression sufferers who smoke marijuana daily think about killing themselves. The risk of suicidal ideation is 52% higher among women than among men.

Taking Responsibility

I know what I did. I know what I’m supposed to do…I still made that decision…I want to take responsibility for my actions. I’m not looking for an excuse.” ~ Sha’Carri Richardson

If there is one positive takeaway from all of this, it is Richardson’s mature response to the positive test and the subsequent ban that will keep her out of the Olympics.

Richardson did not deny using marijuana, she did not seek to lay the blame on someone else, and she did not fight her suspension. She accepted the natural consequences of her actions and is now looking to her still-bright future.

Right now, I’m just putting all my energy into dealing with what I need to deal with to heal myself,” Richardson says. “After my sanction is up, I’ll be back and ready to compete.”

Richardson’s mindset is healthy and will serve her well moving forward. It has also garnered her considerable praise. President Joe Biden said he was “really proud of the way she responded“, and Nike, Richardson’s sponsor, had this to say:

We appreciate Sha’Carri’s honesty and accountability and will continue to support her through this time.

That personal accountability also helped Richardson avoid an even-longer ban. Because she agreed to seek treatment, her suspension was reduced from three months down to one.

What Can We Learn from Sha’Carri Richardson’s Struggles?

The first lesson for all of us is that mental health issues and substance abuse struggles can happen to ANYBODY. Even someone as young, talented, famous, and admired as Sha’Carri Richardson can experience loss, battle emotional pain, and have a real need for healthy coping strategies.

Secondly, Richardson’s situation shows that drug use has consequences. She would have been suspended even if recreational use was legal in Louisiana. The same holds true in other situations. For example, did you know that you can be fired from your job for smoking legal marijuana, even on your own time?

Next, Richardson’s honest admission about why she was using marijuana opens up an important conversation. Mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of, and anyone who is struggling should have the freedom to seek professional help. Self-medicating does nothing to solve the underlying issue. On the contrary, substance abuse ALWAYS causes even more problems, as it did in this case.

Finally, we can see the importance of taking responsibility, admitting that a problem exists, and then taking the necessary steps to deal with that problem. Sha’Carri Wilson has done all of that, and despite the unfortunate present, her future is still as bright as ever.

In other words, recovery works.


TO ALL CALIFORNIA RESIDENTS: If you are turning to marijuana, alcohol, or other substances to cope with trauma or emotional pain, Lasting Recovery can help. Our evidence-based and award-winning approach gives you your best chance to regain both your sobriety and your emotional health.

Best of all, our new statewide telemedicine program lets you receive the services you need from the privacy and safety of your own home, via a secure Internet connection.

If you suspect that you or someone you love has a problem with marijuana, take our brief self-assessment to find out if it’s time to seek help.

For more information or for a confidential needs assessment, contact Lasting Recovery TODAY.

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