Sprinting Towards Social Change

Sprinting towards social change. Thank you: https://unsplash.com/@mattlee

Sprinting Towards Social Change

by Henria Stephens, articling student, Cannabis Law, Barristers & Solicitors

August 4, 2021

photo by Matt Lee

By now you may have heard about American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who was banned from competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics’ 100 metre dash event because she failed a drug test. The prohibited drug in question was cannabis.

Ms. Richardson did not cheat; she smoked a joint. Moreover, she smoked that joint after being informed that her mother had died. Sadly, her choice of pain and anxiety management — though legal in many jurisdictions — is still barred by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

As a result of her “misdeed”, the 21 year-old rising star received a 30-day ban, nullifying her qualification time and therefore preventing her from competing. Ms. Richardson had to apologize to her fans and the American people for using medicine to heal. Empathy was completely lost in a situation where she deserved it desperately.

Why does a 21 year-old, whose processing of grief that includes the use of cannabis as medicine that in no way enhances her performance, get banned?

Cannabis: not performance enhancing

Oddly, cannabis is not performance enhancing –– it will not give you added speed or more endurance. There are many therapeutic uses for cannabis that would actually benefit athletes during competition, including anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties for physical complaints, and anti-anxiety and anti-depression alleviation for the often overlooked mental health support component of competition.

Despite the scientific fact that there is no correlation between performance enhancement and cannabis use, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), whose codes inform the IOC’s own drug enforcement standards, have listed cannabis as a banned substance during competition, while not prohibiting Cannabidiol (CBD) since 2017.

With this recent approval of CBD, athletes are now more candid discussing its usefulness. Olympic gold medalist and U.S. Soccer’s National Team member Megan Rapinoe, hurdler Devon Allen, softball outfielder Hayley McCleney and WNBA champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird have all incorporated CBD into their natural wellness, training and recovery routines.

However, cannabis with delta-9, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) continues to be prohibited because it meets two out of three inclusion criteria as set out by WADA, which are possessing a health risk to athletes and violating the spirit of sport. It is not clear what “violating the spirit of sport” means.

WADAs final decisions are governed by a 38-member Foundation Board. WADA’s website refers to this Board as “composed equally of representatives from the Olympic Movement and Governments of the world.” Whose “world” is that? A cursory glance through the “representative” list uncovers an unsurprisingly disproportionate representation delineated along historically hierarchical colonial lines. EU: 14 reps, Europe: four, Asia: seven, Africa: five, South America: three, Oceana: three, North and Central America: two. A couple of lowlights regarding these numbers, Europeans have nearly 50 percent of the final decision making power at WADA, and with 28 members being male, they constitute over 70 percent of WADA’s final decision making authority. With less than ten percent of world population representation (Europe), white European men continue to dominate and lead the conversation around appropriate drug use.

Rolling back the years

In 1923, cannabis lost her status as a normalized drug on account of political subterfuge, racism and greed. In the United States, pharmaceuticals like aspirin were deemed acceptable, replacing other traditional medicines that were labelled narcotics and banned. According to City of Toronto Public Health data, “These laws were based on moral judgments and racist ideas about specific groups of people and the drugs they were using (for example, Asian immigrants who consumed opium). Decisions about the legal status of drugs, including alcohol, were not based on scientific assessments of their potential for harm.”

The case of former Canadian Olympian and 1998 gold medalist Ross Rebagliati is a good illustration of how arbitrary the IOC rules are. The professional snowboarder and cannabis culture enthusiast was stripped of his gold medal and disqualified for having THC in his system. At the time, he admitted to smoking cannabis ten months prior to the games but insisted that he failed the test on account of secondhand smoke exposure. As one would assume, the IOC was unsympathetic. What made this situation novel is that cannabis was not a banned substance at the time. As a result of this conundrum, Rebagliati’s medal was restored on appeal. The appeals court held that the IOC had no authority to strip him of his medal given that cannabis was not officially banned. Shortly thereafter it was banned in April 1998, as cannabis culture and behaviour was not in alignment with the IOC leadership. The new rule was dubbed the “Ross Rebagliati Rule”, an example of a cultural war on drugs.

It is time for WADA and the IOC to recognize that framing the “code” governing drugs banned in the 1930’s needs to align itself with science, nature and current evidence. For example, the Nevada State Athletic Commission, in partnership with Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and the UFC has lifted their ban on cannabis use and no longer deem a positive test result as an anti-doping infraction. Further, major sports leagues such as the NFL, NHL and MLB have stopped suspending players for using cannabis.

Athletes have a right to more personal agency, and anti-doping bodies must realign their mandates to address what is most important: fair play, not outdated international — and white-male-based — drug enforcement policy.

“We’re expected to perform on the biggest stages and highest levels, yet we can’t use all-natural products to help us recover,... It’s not right, and these policies need to be changed to reflect where our culture is.” -- Olympic gold medalist Megan Rapino

Tripping towards progress

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our American neighbours have taken a much more progressive stance on drug enforcement as it relates to competitive sports. “A bipartisan group of members of Congress slammed the punishment... (of Ms. Richardson), with leaders of a key House subcommittee sending a scathing letter to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), urging the bodies to “strike a blow for civil liberties and civil rights by reversing this course you are on.”

In comparison, the Canadian federal government is addressing issues faced on account of legalization through an All-Party Cannabis Caucus with three priorities: 1) get rid of the “black” market, and encourage a legal marketplace; 2) take a patient centered approach, making sure that it’s not harder for them to access their medicine; and, 3) make sure that as we fulfill the promise of legalization that racial injustice is rectified from past laws and wrongs.

Rules of the past no longer carry the same currency with cannabis. The War on Drugs was lost. Its vestiges need to take its last laps in international sports competition. There is no benefit to pursuing the continued sanctioning of cannabis by WADA.

The harsh sanctioning of Ms. Richardson was based in the same archaic, ill-conceived, prejudicial and opportunistic notions that criminalized this medicinal and complex plant. But now that it is once again legal, the legacy of cannabis-based persecution that has permeated the bastion of athletics, disregarding the science and instead propping up a tacitly bias moral code, provides a clear conclusion: Ms. Richardson’s ban is tragic and cruel and her negative experience must be the last.

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