Why Marijuana Can Disqualify a Runner From the Olympics

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The news that the American sprinting star Sha’Carri Richardson faced disqualification from the Olympics after testing positive for marijuana quickly drew an outsized reaction across the country.

And for many people that reaction was:

“Wait, you can be kicked out of the Olympics for pot?”

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Richardson, 21, won the women’s 100-meter race at the U.S. track and field trials in Oregon last month. She was a favorite to win a medal in Tokyo, and with her colorful hair, vivacious personality and blazing speed she seemed poised to be one of the breakout American stars of the Games.

But under the rules, her positive test invalidated her result in the trials, keeping her out of the 100 at the Games. Her month suspension may end in time for her to run on the 4×100 meter relay team in Tokyo if she is selected to the team.

Richardson apologized Friday and said in an interview with NBC that she had used marijuana to help cope with the death of her biological mother a week before the trials. She said she learned about her mother during an interview with a reporter.

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Marijuana is legal for recreational use in more than a dozen states, including Oregon, where the trials were held. It is legal for medicinal use in many more. But it is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances. The drug is banned on race days, but not outside of competition.

“All natural and synthetic cannabinoids are prohibited,” the agency says, including “hashish, marijuana and cannabis products.” The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee follows WADA’s rules.

If the legal use of marijuana is spreading, at least in the United States, why is it banned in global sports? Drugs are banned if they meet two of three criteria, WADA says: If they enhance performance, pose a health risk or violate “the spirit of sport.”

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WADA reported in a 2011 paper 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.”

There are not a large number of rigorous studies of marijuana as a performance enhancer, but there is evidence that it can help some athletes relax and focus. On the other hand, it can negatively affect hand-eye coordination, concentration and endurance.

As to risk, WADA said that athletes who smoke cannabis “potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.”

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In terms of the “spirit of the sport” rule, WADA said that the “use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world.”

The WADA rules apply across-the-board to Olympic sports, although critics have faulted that one-size-fits-all approach.

The Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana after winning a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. He was initially stripped of his medal, but the ruling was quickly overturned because marijuana wasn’t actually on the list of banned substances; it was added soon afterward.

Rebagliati was found to have 17.8 nanograms per milliliter in his system; he blamed secondhand smoke. In 2013, WADA raised the threshold for a positive test to 150 ng/ml from 15.

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The swimmer Michael Phelps was suspended for three months in 2009 after a picture of him smoking from a bong emerged. That ban did not coincide with any major competitions.

The American track federation abides by the WADA drug rules because it is part of the Olympics. Other major sports organizations that are not directly involved with the Games are free to modify their own antidrug rules, and many have reduced penalties or abandoned bans for marijuana entirely.

Last year the N.F.L. loosened its marijuana rules; testing was limited to two weeks of training camp and the penalty for a positive result was changed to a fine from a suspension. Major League Baseball removed marijuana from its list of banned substances in 2019. The N.B.A. suspended random testing for marijuana for the 2020-21 season, but it remains on the banned list. The U.F.C. no longer penalizes athletes for marijuana use unless the athlete is found to have intentionally used it to enhance performance.

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