Opinion: Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympics Ban Demonstrates There is Still Work to be Done to Change Public Opinion on Cannabis Usage

by Ella Walsh

When discussing cannabis reform, it’s often in relation to the immediate spheres of society, where prohibition has taken priority over harm reduction, and consumers are at immediate risk of harms perpetuated by existing policy. Undoubtedly this is an important focal point, especially in the UK where we still have some way to go with respect to how we perceive and respond to adult use.

As we move globally towards a more liberal stance on cannabis, the Tokyo Olympics has come around to remind us of how ingrained these prohibitionist ideologies and attitudes toward cannabis are, in areas of culture and society beyond national borders. Progressive reform in countries of considerable influence, such as the US, has lent itself to a wider global discussion of how we view and treat those who use cannabis, and the justification and validity for such treatment. 

Earlier this month the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced that Sha’Carri Richardson would be banned from competing in the Women’s 100 meters, for using cannabis prior to her qualifiers; citing the presence of non-performance enhancing chemical compound THC in her drug screening. The move to ban the American athlete from competing at the Tokyo Olympics has been met with much disappointment and confusion. 

There have since been numerous articles covering the nuances around this story, with regards to racism in the Olympics; ethical conduct of athletes; and whether the WADAs draconian stance on cannabis, as a prohibited substance of abuse, should be reviewed

Sha’Carri has since come out and said that she is ‘human’ and was using cannabis as a coping mechanism to help her deal with grief. This begs to reason, why do we continue to punish,  stigmatise and ostracise those who use cannabis in sport? Especially when use has taken place where it is legal; for perfectly understandable and valid reasons; and when the chemical compound in discussion is non-beneficial to performance.

According to the WADAs list of substances that are prohibited during competition, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is classed as a substance of abuse, and therefore use of any cannabis products containing naturally occurring THC or synthesised THC is prohibited. However, cannabinol (CBD) is classed an exception. 

The World Anti-Doping Agency cite three reasons for the prohibition of cannabis during competition:

  • The risk of endangerment through slowed reaction times and loss of executive functioning 
  • The potential performance enhancing effects of cannabis (although the research isn’t clear) 
  • Perceiving cannabis is a ‘violation of the vision of sports’, and athletes who use it as poor role models. 

What makes this stance, and subsequent decisions to disqualify athletes for use, harder to digest is that other athletes are being championed for ‘coming out’ about their use of CBD as a therapeutic treatment during training, recovery and competition. It’s as though THC and CBD don’t come from the same plant. It’s frustrating to see the WADA and Olympic officials treat THC automatically as a drug of abuse, with no leeway for adult, therapeutic or medicinal use. While simultaneously recognising the therapeutic benefits of CBD only. 

This certainly isn’t reflective of the progress that has been made globally, such as the UN’s recognition of cannabis as a medical treatment under the Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs.  There have been big steps taken to re-contextualize cannabis as a therapeutically and medically beneficial drug, with relatively fewer harms than other drugs; including prescription drugs that are afforded therapeutic use exemption (TUE) status by the WADA. 

While it may be too late for Sha’Carri to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, her case has certainly helped to raise awareness around this issue. It is hoped that this may even prompt a review to the WADAs stance on cannabis use during completion, as backed by the world athletic president, Sebastian Coe. 

Here at Volteface we would like to see all compounds found in the cannabis plant championed like CBD has been, and while it’s certainly fantastic to see CBD embraced into sporting and athletics, we need to go further. There is much more to the cannabis plant than cannabinoid alone, athletes are potentially missing out on a wide variety of therapeutic and medical benefits that come from the entourage effect (different cannabinoids working together). The WADA’s policy around THC seems to be rooted more in prohibition, stigma and misconception than science – much in line with wider drug policy. As we continue to shift away from these ideas that cannabis is “just a harmful drug,” we need to make sure that we are addressing these less obvious areas of policy. 

Ella Walsh is a Content Officer at Volteface. Tweets @snoop_ella

Featured Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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