Doping

Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympic Suspension and WADA’s take on Ganja – #letherrun

[From the Editors’ Desk – By Aakash Batra]


American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson is going to miss the 100m event at the Tokyo Olympics owing to her being handed over a one-month long suspension by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (‘USADA’). This news definitely left her fans saddened and confused, considering that she was one of the favorites expected to win a medal at the said event. While Richardson has accepted the ban imposed on her, which surely reflects good behavior in terms of transparency on her part, there are certain considerations to this which must be looked at. It has to be noted that she has been suspended for an anti-doping rule violation, however, the same is not for using anabolic steroids or skipping drug tests, but for using Marijuana. This of course sounds inconsistent especially for an athlete belonging to a Nation wherein Marijuana could be legally procured and used in many states, and also because Marijuana is definitely not a performance enhancing substance. The first part of this confusion is not really an inconsistency, at least in a technical way. Here’s how-

Working of Anti-doping protocols

The World Anti Doping Agency (‘WADA’) was essentially created for the purpose of regulating the menace of doping in Sports. The need for such regulation is felt due to various reasons, mainly because banned substances are typically synthetic so they artificially enhance athletic performance- If the point of sport is to test the natural limits of human nature then, by artificially extending those limits, doping is at odds with the essence of sport. WADA formulates a list of prohibited substances which keeps updating from time to time and all the signatories are required to abide by the rule of not allowing the use of such substances. USADA is a signatory to WADA and is responsible for ensuring regulation at national level. The rules which WADA sets are consistent for each nation and whether the said substance is legal or not in a particular nation is totally irrelevant.

How is the prohibited list formulated?

To ascertain whether a particular substance should be a part of the aforementioned prohibited substances list or not, WADA essentially follows a ‘three-pronged’ criteria. The three respective prongs of this criteria pose three broad questions, which are-

  1. Whether the substance enhances or could potentially enhance the athlete’s performance;
  2. Whether the substance poses or could pose a health risk for the Athlete;
  3. Whether it violates ‘the spirit of the Sport’.

Now, if any two prongs of the three are satisfied, the substance is classified as prohibited and using the same would amount to an anti-doping rule violation.

Does Marijuana ‘really’ satisfy the above criteria?

Here is what Natasha Could said in support to Richardson, with many other Athletes coming forward in support. Now, it has to be understood why WADA is of the opinion that weed should be prohibited. The reasoning has been provided in an official paper authored by WADA’s Science Director in 2011, which could be found here. The observations of the paper are briefed as follows in order of the respective prong of the three-part criteria they address:

  1. Marijuana ‘might’ help the Athletes in relieving stress, which in turn would give them a performance advantage over others;
  2. Athletes using Marijuana could experience ‘slower reaction times and poor executive function’ which would endanger them;
  3. Marijuana use ‘is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world.’

With respect to the first prong, which undoubtedly forms the essence of anti-doping, the paper slyly cautions that “Although much more scientific information is needed… cannabis can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines,”. This in my opinion could definitely not be termed as a ‘finding’, especially when there is adequate research which lays down completely opposite conclusions. In a highly recognized Journal, the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, this topic has been specifically dealt with in the academic paper titled ‘Cannabis: Exercise performance and sport. A systematic review’. The conclusion of this research points out (Note: without any sly disclaimers) that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the main component in Marijuana, “does not enhance aerobic exercise or strength.”

Furthermore, in 2019, WADA relaxed the rules for cannabidiol, which is one of the substance’s derivative, however, the approach regarding THC has still maintained as it is.

The second prong which WADA explains in this regard is also not completely justified in my opinion, inasmuch as no explanation or categorization has been provided with respect to the quantity used. Albeit WADA raised the threshold considerably from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 150, making it harder for athletes who used the drug to get ensnared by the positive test, analysts argue that it still is an imprecise and unjustified standard.

Lastly, if they think that it is potentially against the spirit of sport, by that vague logic even Alcohol could be termed so [Note- Scientific evidence exists which proves Alcohol to be more dangerous than Marijuana]. And then by the same logic, why not cigarettes? Drug experts broadly agree that individuals and society would arguably be better off if marijuana became the most accepted recreational intoxicant of choice instead of alcohol. Columbia University researchers estimated that alcohol multiplies the chance of a fatal traffic accident by nearly 14 times, while marijuana nearly doubles the risk.

Political ANGLE

Whether Marijuana should be prohibited or not has been debated since long. Adam Kilgore has written in The Washington Times, that the debate on this topic has ‘become a political minefield, with more than 100 countries represented and nearly as many national outlooks toward marijuana. Even today, while roughly 40 countries have at least partially legalized marijuana, others punish marijuana use or possession with prison time. The rollback of penalties may provide a starting point to convince involved governments that WADA can remove marijuana from the list altogether.’

The domestic policies too have played a key role in this regard, getting triggered from the era or war on drugs. Kilgore says that Richardson’s ban is nothing but an echo from that era, when the USA government pushed for a complete ban of drugs, including a ban on recreational use of marijuana. Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar under President Bill Clinton, made clear that the United States believed the IOC should fight both performance-enhancing drugs and recreational drugs such as marijuana. McCaffrey’s office lobbied U.S. anti-doping leaders to include marijuana on the banned list.

Joe Biden, according to Reuters, has commented on Richardson’s suspension by saying that:

 “The rules are the rules and everybody knows what the rules were going in. Whether they should remain the rules is a different issue, but the rules are the rules.”

While Richardson could have knocked the doors of the Court of Arbitration for Sport to get the suspension reduced, she has agreed to the suspension and has admitted the rule violation. This is truly a transparent and honest gesture. This is what she tweeted-

In light of the above discussion, I personally feel that the suspension is not justified and that she should be allowed to compete. The trend #letherrun has gained momentum with supporters all over the world having the same opinion. Whereas, as biden commented that ‘rule is rule’ to an extent justifies the suspension, me being a fan would anyway conclude by saying- #letherrun

*For any query, feedback or discussion, Aakash can be contacted at [aakashbatra@sportslawandpolicyreviewreporter.com]

PREFERRED CITATION– Aakash Batra, Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympic Suspension and WADA’s take on Ganja – #letherrun, SLPRR, <https://sportslawandpolicyreviewreporter.com/?p=1553> July 4, 2021.

*NOTE- The opinions and views expressed in this article are that of the Author(s) and not of SLPRR- the expressed opinions do not, in any way whatsoever, reflect the views of any third party, including any institution/organization that the Author(s) is/are currently associated to or was/were associated to in the past. Furthermore, the expressions are solely for informational and educational purposes, and must not be deemed to constitute any kind of advice. The hyperlinks in this blog might take you to webpages operated by third parties- SLPRR does not guarantee or endorse the accuracy or reliability of any information, data, opinions, advice, statements, etc. on these webpages.

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