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What Sha'Carri Richardson Taught Us About Cannabis and Being Human

The jury is still out on whether cannabis is performance-enhancing, but we know it's life-enhancing.

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Sha’Carri Richardson’s post-Olympic return to racing did not go well. Last Saturday night, the sixth fastest woman to ever run 100 meters, finished dead last at the Prefontaine Classic 100-meter race in Eugene, Oregon. Two months earlier, during the Olympic Trials, Richardson placed 1st on the very same track, running the same 100-meter race nearly a third of a second faster. What changed? One thing for sure—this time, Richardson didn’t use cannabis. 

Patrick Smith | Getty Images

A quick refresher. In late June, the 21-year-old track superstar grabbed headlines following the Olympic Trials, when her post-race drug test came back positive for THC, aka cannabis. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) revoked Richardson's win and instituted a 30-day ban from competition. Richardson’s Olympic dream, along with America's best shot at 100-meter gold, went up in smoke. It didn’t have to be this way. 

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

A brief history of cannabis and the Olympics

In 1998, Canadian snowboarder, Ross Rebagliati, tested positive for THC after winning gold at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. At the time, cannabis was not on the IOC’s list of banned substances and Rebagliati was allowed to keep his medal. The U.S. government was not pleased. The late ’90s were the height of the U.S. War on Drugs— a time when millions of U.S. citizens (a disproportionate number of them Black) were criminalized (and often jailed) for simple possession of marijuana. Following Rebagliati’s win, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy published a paper stating that “[his medal] directly undercut our messages to young people that drug use undermines a child’s opportunities for success.” They also donated a million dollars to help the IOC “cleanse sports of drugs.” Cannabis was banned soon after.

Ever since, the IOC and its affiliate, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have argued that cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug. The claim is not without controversy.  For decades, anti-cannabis propaganda has portrayed cannabis users as lazy. In popular culture, fans of the plant are called ‘stoners,’ in the sense that like a stone, they sit in one place and do nothing.  Rebagliati and Richardson are either exceptions to this rule or proof that it is wrong.

Does cannabis enhance performance?

A recent NYTimes article exploring cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug described the scientific evidence behind the claim as “ inconclusive at best,” noting, “a broad overview of the research concludes that marijuana hinders performance by reducing stamina and peak performance while increasing heart and breathing rate.” The article’s author, Matt Richtel, argues that in attempting to justify its ban of the drug, WADA “overstated anecdotal and speculative evidence.” He references Roger Pielke Jr., an expert in sports governance and a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, who decried WADA’s cannabis ban as “policy-based science,” where the decision to ban a drug is made before the evidence is in.

Regardless, Sha’Carri Richardson knew the rules when she reached for a joint the night before the Olympic Trials. “I know what I did, I know what I'm supposed to do… and I still made that decision,” Richardson said in an interview with the TODAY show following news of her ban. She explained that in the days leading up to the Olympic Trials, a reporter unknowingly informed her of the death of her biological mother. “I was just thinking it would be a normal interview… but to hear that information coming from a stranger... I was definitely triggered… and hurting.”  

Richardson used cannabis to help her cope with the pain of loss. She is not the first. In fact, the earliest known evidence of humans ‘smoking’ cannabis dates back 2,500 years to an ancient Chinese mourning ritual. Archeologists exploring a cemetery in Western China discovered cannabis pipes buried within tombs.  The ‘pipes’ consisted of wooden bowls with slotted lids, which mourners filled with hot stones and cannabis. A thousand years earlier, Assyrian texts reference cannabis as a ‘Drug for Sorrow.’  

For at least 4,000 years, human beings have turned to cannabis during hard times. Psychiatrist and author, Dr. Tod Mikuriya (1933-2007), known as the grandfather of medical cannabis, believed cannabis’ capacity to help in this regard was so unique that it deserved its own drug classification, which he termed ‘easement.’ In a 2001 paper, Dr. Mikuriya wrote, “Cannabis relieves pain, enables sleep [and] normalizes gastrointestinal function. [When] fortified by improved digestion and adequate rest, patients can resist being overwhelmed by triggering stimuli.” In other words, cannabis can help us cope.

When Sha’Carri Richardson smoked cannabis on the eve of the Olympic Trials it was not to help her run faster but to ensure she would be able to run in the first place. For Richardson and so many others, cannabis is not performance-enhancing, it is life-enhancing. We use cannabis to achieve inner peace, a calmer belly, a lighter heart, and a better attitude. When Richardson arrived at Saturday’s race, she faced global scrutiny and intense pressure. She was also in mourning, both for her mother and her Tokyo Olympic dreams. Expectations were incredibly high, but sadly, Richardson was not. The results speak for themselves.

Using cannabis to cope

1. Go low and slow

Self-regulation is imperative with any substance, especially during difficult times. Start low (dosage-wise) and slow (if you are new to cannabis, take one puff, and wait 5-10 minutes before deciding to take another). Open to edibles? Try microdosing, which is defined as less than 2.5mg of THC. Remember, the onset of effects from cannabis edibles is much higher (30-90 min) than when smoking or vaping cannabis (1-5 min).

2. Find a peaceful setting

If ‘location’ is everything in real estate, ‘setting’ is everything in cannabis. Go for a walk in a beautiful spot. Play with your dog. Cook a great meal. Invite over a non-judgmental and fun-loving friend. Use cannabis as a tool to help you relax, connect and open up. 

3. Don’t forget CBD!

 Look for products with high levels of CBD (along with at least some THC). THC and CBD can have antidepressant effects similar to SSRI's, enhancing mood-regulating chemicals like serotonin, which may drop during periods of grief. While both THC & CBD can help improve mood, some studies suggest higher ratios of CBD are more helpful in easing depressive symptoms.

4. The nose knows

Terpenes are what give cannabis and other plants a distinctive smell and taste. Studies show terpenes like Limonene (think lemons) and alpha-pinene (think pine needles) have mood-improving properties. Ask your local dispensary guide for help finding products high in these terpenes.