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What Will the Sha'Carri Richardson Ban Mean for the Future of Cannabis in the Olympics?

Richardson didn't compete in the Tokyo Olympics, but she deserves a gold medal for bringing the issue of cannabis and athletics to the conversation.

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As the 2020 Olympics fake into memory without Sha’Carri Richardson, many experts still believe her use of cannabis would not have improved her performance. Richardson didn’t use the plant to run better, she simply wanted to calm her anxiety about the death of her mother.

If she had instead sipped a beer or taken a shot of whiskey, Richardson would be competing right now in Japan.

When you filter out all the noise around what happened with Richardson and focus on this key fact, it’s no wonder so many people want changes in how the Olympics regulates cannabis.  

NFL superstar Patrick Mahomes offered an oft-quoted take that seemed to sum up the general feeling on the subject: “She put in the work. Even though she made a mistake, like we all make mistakes ... to not let her be at the Olympics at all is pretty ridiculous to me.”

Related: Is Cannabis a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

 

Why the Olympic ban cannabis

While many agree with Mahomes, the fact remains: the rules are the rules. Others have pointed to this as a defense for the decision to ban Richardson. But the better question is: Why are these the rules?

Richardson used weed the night before her U.S. Olympics trial (in Oregon, where adult-use marijuana is legal). Only 21, she said she did so to help her deal with the death of her mother. Richardson ranked among the favorites to win gold in the 100-meter race in Japan.

According to the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the ban on marijuana use is partly based on a World Anti-Doping Code (WADC) paper from 2011. The paper found that using cannabis in competition can endanger both the user and others in the competition because it may slow reaction times, among other issues. The report also offered the opinion that using cannabis is “not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world.”

But the report also said that “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.”

That part has raised quite a bit of debate this summer, to say the least.

Related: Reaction Over Sha'Carri Richardson Disqualifying for Tokyo Overshadows Olympics Itself

Is it possible to improve athletic performance by smoking cannabis the night before?

The New York Times, after interviewing scientists and athletes, addressed the issue in a recent article: “Although marijuana is prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, there’s no scientific evidence that it can make people bigger, stronger, or faster athletes. If anything, cannabis…has a reputation for decreasing athletic performance.”

Dr. Michael J. Joyner, an exercise physiologist and anesthesiologist who studies elite athletes at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, told the Times that, “If you look at any test of physical performance, there’s either no data, it’s a wash, or marijuana makes it worse.”

The Times noted that many amateur athletes may use a small amount of cannabis to reduce anxiety about outside problems and focus on exercising, such as a long run.

Carl Hart, a Columbia University psychology professor, told Reuters that the U.S. Olympics team banned Richardson from competing “because of arbitrary rules." He noted that legalization around the country is “highlighting the arbitrariness of our cannabis laws and the stupidity of them. This (ban) further shows the hypocrisy."

Clearly, many experts and athletes do not agree with the WADC. Whether that results in a change in the rules remains to be seen. But for Richardson, any change will come too late. 

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