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August 24, 2021
The World Anti-Doping Agency's Misguided Cannabis Policy & What We Learned from the 2020 Summer Olympics

BY SUMMER MYATT | Photo by Matt Lee

Over the past decade, the world has seen an important, meaningful shift—culturally, legislatively, and medically—in how society uses and perceives cannabis. In the United States, cannabis has been legalized for recreational use in 18 states; a growing list of over 40 countries including Canada, South Africa, and Uruguay have legalized (or at the very least decriminalized) cannabis for either medical use, recreational use, or both; and according to a recent report, cannabis is projected to be a $70.6 billion market by 2028. But despite the increasingly enthusiastic global push towards legalization, normalization, and acceptance, sports organizations like the International Olympics Committee are still frustratingly stuck in the dark ages. 

Upholding stuffy rules implemented decades ago when cannabis was still illegal in most of the world, the IOC continues to penalize athletes for cannabis use regardless of the substance’s legality in the countries and states where athletes train and compete. Especially considering the recent rise of cannabidiol (CBD) products in wellness, health, and sports—and among so many other industries—the lines between what is deemed "acceptable" and "unacceptable" cannabis use appears blurry and arbitrary. Predictably, this year’s Olympic Games were yet again buzzing with cannabis controversy as the International Olympics Committee and their affiliated World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) stood staunchly by their discriminatory and hypocritical ban on the substance.

In June, Olympic hopeful Sha’Carri Richardson became an instant media sensation not only because she ran the women’s 100-meter race at the U.S. track and field trials in full makeup, gorgeously flowing bright orange hair, and long acrylic nails, but because her win in that race—with a 10.86-second finishing time, which qualified her for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games—earned her the title of fastest American woman. Yet that race wasn’t even her fastest to date: In April of this year, the Dallas, Texas native ran a 10.72-second race, the sixth-fastest women’s 100-meter race time in history. Richardson was clearly a wildly talented track star hurtling towards athletic greatness and Olympic victory, but she was robbed of the chance to prove it. The star sprinter tested positive for Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and the United States Anti-Doping Agency gave Richardson a one-month suspension, ultimately disqualifying her from competing in this year’s Summer Olympics.

This disheartening instance is hardly the first in which an athlete’s Olympic qualification was in jeopardy due to cannabis use. In 1998, Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati became the first-ever gold medalist in the men’s giant slalom event, but he was stripped of his medal after a drug test revealed a small amount of THC in his system(17.8 ng/mL, which was slightly over the International Ski Federation’s 15 ng/mL threshold at the time, but far below WADA’s current threshold, since 2013, of 150 ng/mL). At the time, the IOC had no rules against cannabis, and after the Canadian Olympic Association appealed the disqualification, Rebagliati’s medal was eventually restored. However, two months later, the IOC officially prohibited the use of cannabis. In another example, American swimmer Michael Phelps was photographed smoking marijuana months after winning 8 gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. While Phelps never tested positive for cannabis during the competition period, he still faced a three-month suspension and withdrawal of support by USA Swimming, lost multiple sponsorships from brands like Kellogg after the photo circulated, and endured a brutal public scandal and socially influenced repentance. 

Today, the IOC continues to uphold outdated rules, but they’re not entirely blind to the softened public attitude towards cannabis and the evolving social landscape of today. In 2017, WADA removed CBD from its banned substance list, finally giving athletes the opportunity to incorporate CBD products into their training regimens. CBD has grown in popularity in sports for their neuroprotective qualities and physically restorative properties—something world-famous American soccer star, Megan Rapinoe, was quick to tout at this year’s Olympic Games. Just one month after Richardson’s suspension, Rapinoe was featured in a Forbes article titled “Cannabis Takes The World Stage At The Tokyo Olympics,” in which she promoted CBD products from a company called Mendi, co-owned by her sister, Rachel Rapinoe. At best, the timing of these two events is an unfortunate coincidence. At worst, showcasing and supporting a white woman’s open use of cannabis a mere month after a Black woman’s suspension over her use of the same drug is an appalling reflection of the persistent inequalities, systemic racism, and lasting harmful effects from the Reagan-era "war on drugs" that continues to plague almost every aspect of American life from 1971 to today. In addition to reopening deep cultural wounds, the controversy highlights the growing disparity between the trending widespread acceptance of CBD and the ongoing criminalization of THC.

The rise of CBD use in sports points to a clear correlation between high-impact, physically demanding activities and the need for sustainable solutions for the chronic pain, traumatic injuries, and psychological issues those activities are known to cause. Sustainable is the key word here that is most devastatingly absent from the injury and pain management plans so many professional sports organizations employ, leaving too many athletes masking symptoms, burning out, and merely getting by. Jack Brewer, former NFL player and cannabis advocate, spoke out against his years of mistreatment by team doctors in a CNBC commentary, saying, “The reality is that I worked with countless medical staff members who provided toxic pain-management drugs for me to control my injuries and quickly reduce my swelling in an effort to minimize recovery time.” Highly addictive opioids, medications with serious and life-threatening side effects, and even drugs that later become banned (Brewer revealed that the drug Vioxx, a pain killer he was prescribed and took daily for years, was “banned and removed from distribution over safety concerns” after his NFL career was over) are too often the first and easiest choice for team medical staff to prescribe to athletes, leading to dangerous outcomes including addiction, physical and psychological illness, and sometimes even death. 

Considering these harmful alternatives, it should come as no surprise that a natural substance like cannabis is rapidly gaining popularity in sports medicine. The substance’s lengthy list of benefits includes improved quality of sleep, effectively treating pain and inflammation, and alleviating anxiety and nervousness, which can all ultimately aid in mental and physical recovery for athletes competing and performing at the world’s highest professional levels. With CBD products ranging from topical balms and creams to precisely dosed ingestibles like tablets, gummies, and gel capsules, athletes have the ability to personalize their wellness plans and take more of a driver’s-seat approach to their own health as opposed to blindly popping pills pushed on them by team doctors. While the spreading acceptance of CBD use in sports is certainly progress to celebrate, THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis responsible for the feeling of being high, widely remains too taboo for sports organizations to readily endorse.

Perhaps the most glaring issue here is that while the compound has an array of positive mental and physical effects, THC certainly doesn’t improve athletic ability, as The New York Times recently reported and reiterated. With negative effects including increased blood pressure, dizziness, decreased lung health (when ingested via smoking), spiked heart rates, and sometimes feelings of paranoia, it’s hard to say THC makes anyone a better or stronger athlete. Nonetheless, it continues to be included on WADA’s banned substance list. A substance will join this list if it meets two of three criteria: It has the potential to enhance, or enhances, sport performance; it represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete; or it violates the spirit of sport. 

In 2011, WADA explained their reasoning for keeping marijuana and cannabinoids on the list, citing the substances as potentially performance-enhancing, and dangerous to athletes “because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.” However, the lingering taboo of THC and the lazy stoner image associated with it undoubtedly plays a more influential role in its cemented position on the banned substance list. WADA’s explanation went on to state, “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 hypocrisy in this lies in WADA’s intentional exclusion of other harmful substances from the list, like alcohol most notably. Though this year’s Tokyo Olympics banned alcohol in the Olympic Village and in other official venues in an effort to protect athletes from the spread of COVID-19, drinking is typically a common and popular pastime amongst Olympic athletes. Far from performance-enhancing, alcohol directly and indirectly kills thousands of people every year, but drinking continues to be a permitted and even celebrated activity in athletes’ free time at the Olympics. By comparison, nobody has ever died of a cannabis overdose. 

Following Richardson’s encounter with cannabis rules this summer, the tidal wave of support for the legalization and recreational and medical use of marijuana continues to swell as politicians, professional athletes, celebrities, and civilians alike argue for the benefits of the substance and against the unsavory image historically thrust upon it.

In a congressional letter to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in response to Richardson’s suspension, Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) stated, “We believe that cannabis does not meet the description of scientifically proven risk or harm to the athlete and the USADA is perpetuating stereotypes and rhetoric fueled by the racist War on Drugs by claiming its usage, in private use and outside of competition, violates the ‘spirit of the sport’.” The House Oversight and Reform Committee tweeted, “Last month, track star Sha’Carri Richardson inspired the country at the U.S. Olympic trials. Her exclusion from the U.S. 4x100 relay team for marijuana use is not only outdated but it also is not supported by science.” 

Even the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency criticized WADA’s policy in a statement which read, “While the U.S. government has a seat at the table to provide feedback, we are ultimately bound to the WADA rules. This is true even in sad and tough cases like this one, where we might take a different approach if the choice was ours to make.” The letter went on to state, “Hopefully this case can be used as an example as to the reasons why it’s time to revisit the issue.”

The topic of cannabis use, legality, and social image continues to be a controversial subject in much of the world, and especially in sports. Because the Olympic Games are positioned at the intersection of professional sports, global relations, advertisement, and entertainment media, the entire event possesses an incredible amount of power and influence over public opinion. Their potential to affect positive change surrounding cannabis—by choosing to allow athletes to use it without fear of penalization, sanctions, or fines—is immense, but Olympic organizations have so far refused to harness it. The athletes who train, play, perform, and compete under the watchful eyes of the entire world deserve that change, and it’s clear our legislators, public figures, and those with meaningful platforms won’t stop fighting for it any time soon.

Summer Myatt is a freelance writer and editor in Brooklyn, New York. She has a particular interest in performance art, culture, and social justice issues of today. In her free time, she likes to bike, dance, and crochet hats for her friends.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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