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Op-Ed: Banning an athlete for marijuana is illogical, unjust and dangerous

Sha'Carri Richardson, on a track, raises her arms in victory.
Sha’Carri Richardson placed first in the women’s 100-meter event at the U.S. Olympic trials in June.
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

Rule broken, rule enforced, case closed — right? Not when it comes to Sha’Carri Richardson. She won the 100-meter qualifying event and earned a place on the U.S. Olympic team heading to Tokyo this month but was disqualified after failing a drug test for marijuana.

The case should not be closed. To simply enforce this antiquated policy would be illogical, unjust and dangerous.

Marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug for a sprinter. Richardson is an awesome talent who likely triumphs despite the substance, not because of it. She is able to overcome her habitually slow reaction times at the start of each race, chasing down her competitors with elite top-end speed. An NCAA champion in the 100 meters as a freshman at Louisiana State University, she parlayed her collegiate success into a professional sprint career that now sees her on the brink of Olympic stardom — no longer in the individual 100-meter event, but potentially still in the 4 x 100 meter relay.

It’s wrong to treat a marijuana user the same as an athlete using steroids or stimulants. The drug tests for so many other track stars — from Ben Johnson to Marion Jones, Regina Jacobs to Shelby Houlihan — revealed performance enhancing steroids, stimulants and human growth hormone. In the days before random out-of-competition drug testing, state-run doping systems in East Germany and other Soviet bloc countries produced athletes who rewrote the women’s record books, clocking times that remain unapproachable to this day. American athletes got in the action too, posting their own dubious records in that thankfully bygone era of Cold War competition.

The World Anti-Doping Agency rightly seeks to present a competitively clean product in track and field events, but banning marijuana in no way furthers that cause.

Richardson is hardly the only victim of this outmoded bias. NFL Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson has been among the most vocal and eloquent critics of the continued prohibition of marijuana in sports, citing the reliance on addictive opioids that often results from these policies. Stigma against THC led prescribers and patients toward opioids and fueled an epidemic that has wreaked havoc across the American landscape, contributing to a cascading mental health crisis and swelling the nation’s homeless population.

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Those who insist on the continued prohibition of marijuana in athletics or at the level of state and federal legislation need to reflect upon the real harms that such rules cause, as well as the deeper, perhaps unconscious motives behind their beliefs. The racist roots of marijuana prohibition in America are well documented. African Americans like Richardson have suffered disproportionately in the criminal justice system’s “war on drugs,” feeding prisons and giving the U.S. its dubious distinction as the most incarcerating nation in the world.

Enforcement of unjust and dangerous policies is not indicative of virtue. U.S.A. Track & Field and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency should refuse to even test for marijuana and should lift the punishments levied against Richardson. The World Anti-Doping Agency should drop marijuana from its list of banned substances — following the lead of decriminalization in much of the U.S. and the world.

In the meantime, America’s Olympic athletes should make a stand for fair competition and athlete safety. They could demand that Richardson be allowed to run the 100-meter event for which she qualified. What’s more, they could call for the removal of marijuana from the banned drugs list in their sport.

Beyond considerations about any one athlete or competition, this moment should serve to shift the American public away even more decisively from this dangerous old piety, this endlessly harmful and unscientific prohibition.

Keenan Norris is the author, most recently, of “The Confession of Copeland Cane.”


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