Anti-doping agency’s view of recreational drugs has shifted over the years

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When Danny Harris tested positive at a 1992 track meet, no one really believed the star hurdler was trying to enhance his performance or otherwise cheat.

But the cocaine in his system was classified as a stimulant — a banned substance — so he became the first athlete in the history of his sport to be sanctioned for using the “recreational” drug.

Twenty-five years later, his case remains an early example of a long-running debate in the anti-doping world.


Marijuana, cocaine and heroin currently appear on the World-Anti Doping Agency’s prohibited list. But they fall into a slightly different category than known performance-enhancers such as steroids and hormones.

And WADA’s view of recreational drugs has shifted over the years.

“It’s a very active process that … is always open to debate and is discussed regularly,” said Dr. Alan Vernec, the agency’s medical director.

Unlike performance-enhancers in the “Prohibited at All Times” category, substances classified as “in-competition” can be used during periods of training — athletes are penalized only if too much of the drug shows up in their systems at a meet or tournament.

Responding to changes in societal attitudes, authorities raised the acceptable level of marijuana from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 150 several years ago. WADA has given no indication that limits for harder drugs will be relaxed.

Recreational drugs remain on the list because they satisfy two of the three criteria for a prohibited substance: Does it enhance performance? Does it pose a health risk? Does it violate the spirit of sport?

That third question is particularly open to interpretation, encompassing a number of issues that include law, public opinion and an athlete’s intent.


“We acknowledge that some of them get caught because they took [a substance] recreationally,” Vernec said. “But how can we know if one took it recreationally or to enhance performance?”

The rules allow for flexibility with length of sanction. Harris had his first suspension reduced on appeal after arguing that he had completed a rehabilitation program. He returned briefly to competition before relapsing.

Which raises another issue for WADA officials who tread a fine line when it comes to recreational drugs.

In some cases, they worry about punishing someone who has already suffered from addiction. Yet they feel a larger responsibility.

“We all want to do the right thing to decrease substance abuse,” Vernec said. “That’s where the struggle is.”


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