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CANNABIS USE IN MODERN OLYMPICS AND THE CURIOUS CASE OF SHA’CARRI RICHARDSON
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
This post has been authored by Mr. Hrishikesh Reddy Kothwal.
Mr. Hrishikesh Reddy Kothwal is a 2nd Year at National Law University and Judicial Academy Assam.
This blog piece is featured as a part of our new 'Editor's Picks' series and our humble intention is to invoke a healthy debate on this topical issue. Any Comments/Ideas to the Editor can be addressed at email@example.com
Sha’Carri Richardson recently became a phenomenon in America’s track and field events with her colorful hair, vivacious personality and blazing speed. She was widely touted as one of the favorites to win the gold at the 100-metre track and field event in the Tokyo Olympics this year, after she ran a personal best of 10.72 seconds in April 2021 this year, becoming the sixth-fastest woman of all time and the fourth-fastest American woman in history. Later in the United States Olympic Trials, she won the women's 100-meter dash with a record 10.86 seconds and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. However, Sha’Carri Richardson was later stripped of her win at the United States Olympic Trials and has been disqualified for the Olympics in effect, due to a one month ban, after testing positive for marijuana in a drug test. Cannabis (of which marijuana is a type) is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of prohibited substances as it is considered a performance-enhancing drug. With cannabis being increasingly legalized over the world for its medical and recreational use, there have been sharp criticisms of Richardson’s disqualification, especially considering that the substance is legal for recreational use in Oregon where the trials were held. Therefore, it becomes pertinent to trace the history of cannabis as a prohibited substance in sports and its ability to enhance performance.
CANNABIS IN THE WADA LIST OF PROHIBITED SUBSTANCES
Cannabis wasn’t on the list of prohibited substances till 1998 and was added after the infamous case of Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati. Ross Rebagliati tested positive for the substance shortly after winning the gold at the inaugural snowboarding event at the Winter Olympics of 1998 and was stripped of his medal. However, the ruling was overturned later given that cannabis wasn’t part of the prohibited substances list then. According to WADA, substances can be banned if it meets two of the three criteria: (a) If they violate the spirit of the sport, (b) If they pose a risk to the health of the athlete or, (c) If they enhance the performance of the athlete.
The principal argument of WADA in contending that cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug can be traced to a paper it reported in 2011 which claims 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.” Additionally, WADA claims that athletes who use cannabis pose a risk to other athletes competing with them because of their slower than normal reaction times, poor decision-making, and increased risk-taking.
With regard to the ‘violation of the spirit of the sport’ criteria, WADA claims that cannabis is considered an illicit drug in various jurisdictions around the world and the usage of such a drug which could also be harmful to health, might also paint a wrong image to young individuals around the world who idolize these athletes.
The qualification of cannabis in both these criteria is questionable, with the attitudes around the world regarding marijuana changing rapidly. WADA places Tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive constituent of marijuana, on par with drugs such as cocaine, heroin and MDMA/ecstasy. However, is there enough evidence to show that cannabis is nearly as harmful to health or if it has the performance enhancement properties that some of these drugs may possess?
CANNABIS AS A PERFORMANCE ENHANCER
It is believed that the major reason why cannabis is considered to improve performance is that it is thought to reduce fear in athletes. This may benefit certain kinds of athletes, a high diver for example and can lead to improved inventiveness.
One of the earliest studies engaging the question of whether cannabis has potential performance-enhancing properties was conducted in 1975. The study exposed 20 volunteers to 1.4 g of cannabis containing 1.3% Tetrahydrocannabinol through a glass pipe. The volunteers were then subjected to tests on the rate of expiration, forced vital capacity (FVC), muscle strength and physical work capacity. It was found through these tests that the use of cannabis increased the heart rate and blood pressure but reduced the physical work capacity of the volunteers. It was further detected that there was no change in FVC, handgrip strength or expiratory flow rate.[i]
It was concluded in a 1982 study that cannabis had no ergogenic characteristics and that the disadvantages of the use of cannabis far outweigh its advantage. [ii] In 1993 another study substantiated the arguments of the 1982 study and reported that the usage of cannabis does more harm than good to an athlete. [iii]
While the performance enhancement properties of cannabis have been in question for decades now, the use of cannabis to enable relaxation and help control anxiety levels may be indirectly perceived by some, to improve performance, particularly in high-risk sports, as has been mentioned above. Data on the impact of cannabis on quantitative sensory testing parameters is inconclusive, however, cannabinoids may improve punctate and pressure pain thresholds, according to some researchers. Cannabis use has also been linked to improved sleep and recovery in athletes, which could help them perform better when competing in several events in a short period.
However, medications performing similar anxiolytic (such as Xanax, Atarax, Ativan etc) and sedative (such as Ambien, Dalmane, Lunesta etc) functions as well as most other medications used for increasing pain thresholds are not prohibited by WADA and are frequently used by many athletes. Most of the recent literature on the subject seems to suggest that cannabis does not have any performance-enhancing properties including the most recent systematic study. [iv] The analysis of all these factors suggests that the reason for prohibiting cannabis in sports is majorly due to safety concerns and the fact that use of an illicit substance is contrary to the spirit of sport but not explicitly due to its supposed ergogenic characteristics.
In 2009, an image of Micheal Phelps, the most decorated olympian of all time, smoking from a bong went viral and he was suspended from participating in any sporting events for 3 months as a consequence. Luckily for him, the suspension did not coincide with any major competitions. However, Sha’Carri Richardson has not been that lucky. She claims to have smoked marijuana after receiving news that her biological mother passed away and was using it to deal with grief. It is a shame that a young woman, as inspiring as Richardson, has to lose out on a potential Olympic medal due to regressive rules that were made in times when cannabis was viewed completely differently around the world.
Lately, there has been some positive change in the area. Citing a change in attitude about the drug and pressure from former and current athletes, various sports bodies are taking progressive approaches while dealing with the usage of cannabis. In 2020, the National Football League (NFL) relaxed its cannabis rules; testing for the drug was reduced to two weeks of training camp and the punishment for a positive result was changed from a suspension to a fine. Major League Baseball has been credited for removing cannabis from its list of prohibited substances. The National Basketball Association (NBA) discontinued the practice of random testing for cannabis for the 2020-21 season, although it can still be found on the banned list. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) does not punish athletes for cannabis use anymore unless the athlete is found to have intentionally used it to enhance performance and the WADA in 2013, raised the threshold for a positive test from 15 ng/ml to 150 ng/ml.
However, this change is not nearly as fast as it should be, especially in WADA’s case. The Sha’Carri Richardson incident can be an opportunity for WADA to assess and evaluate their understanding of cannabis. Sha’Carri Richardson is not the first young athlete to be suspended due to the regressive rule, but she must be the last.
The author can be reached for comments on his email at Hrishikesh@nluassam.ac.in
Cite as: Hrishikesh Reddy Kothwal, Cannabis use in Modern Olympics and the curious case of Sha’carri Richardson, Extra-Cover: The Sports Law Blog of India (20th August 2021), Accessed at https://www.extra-cover.org/post/cannabis-use-in-modern-olympics-and-the-curious-case-of-sha-carri-richardson [Date of Access].
[i] Steadward RD, Singh M. The effects of smoking marihuana on physical performance. Med Sci Sports. 1975;7:309–311.
[ii] Dyment PG. Drug misuse by adolescent athletes. Pediatr Clin North Am. 1982;29:1363–1368.
[iii] Eichner ER. Ergolytic drugs in medicine and sports. Am J Med. 1993;94:205–211.
[iv] Kennedy MC. Cannabis: exercise performance and sport. A systematic review. J Sci Med Sport. 2017;20:825–829.