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Sha’Carri Richardson Broke the Rules—But the Rules Are Stupid

There is no reason for marijuana to be on a banned-substance list. It is not a performance-enhancing drug. And the WADA knows this.

Sha’Carri Richardson owned her mistake, which is good. She used marijuana, which is against World Anti-Doping Agency regulations, and now she will miss her chance to win the 100-meter dash at the Tokyo Olympics. There is no way around this. The rules are the rules.

Also, the rules are stupid.

If pot made a person run faster, Woody Harrelson would be Usain Bolt. There is no reason for marijuana to be on a banned-substance list. Drug testing in sports is complicated, but the principle behind it is pretty simple: It should be designed to keep athletes from using performance-enhancing drugs. That’s it. Marijuana is not performance-enhancing.

Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates after winning the women's 100m in 10.86 during the US Olympic Team Trials at Hayward Field.

Marijuana is fully legal in 18 U.S. states, and so it seems especially outrageous that a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is suspending Richardson. But the problem is not that USADA is suspending her. The problem is that it has no choice.

Follow along here. You might need coffee (perfectly legal!) to keep track.

WADA creates the banned-substance list. USADA is part of WADA. USADA is in charge of testing U.S. athletes. When Richardson tested positive, USADA had discretion to reduce her suspension to one month if she agreed to go through treatment. That suspension began June 28—which means, according to the International Olympic Committee, Richardson will be eligible to run in Tokyo. Her suspension will be up.

So why can’t she run? Well, because her positive test occurred so close to the U.S. Track and Field trials that her times there have been voided. USA Track and Field, unlike federations in other countries, relies exclusively on trials results to select its team. This is why Donavan Brazier won’t run the 800 in Tokyo—he is the best in the world in the 800, but he faltered in the trials and didn’t make the team. If USATF makes an exception for Richardson, that would create a lot of problems. For one, Brazier would have been better off skipping the trials to smoke weed.

Also: Richardson might still be on the team, anyway. USATF has discretion in choosing the 4x100 relay team—it does not rely exclusively on trials times for that. And so USATF can put Richardson on the relay—and logically, since Richardson is arguably the fastest 100-meter sprinter in the world, it should do just that.

USADA did what it had to do. USATF is doing what it can. The failure here is with WADA rules.

Most frustrating: WADA knows that banning marijuana is ridiculous. That’s why the ban is so short! The minimum ban for a performance-enhancing drug is two years. This year, WADA decided that substances like cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and cannabis were often “substances of abuse” and that suspensions for using them should not automatically be the same as for performance-enhancing drugs. As WADA spokesperson James Fitzgerald told Cycling Weekly, “It was felt that the use of these drugs was often unrelated to sport performance.”

Often? How about ever? And why is WADA still grouping drugs together that are very different in both effect and risk?

Anybody who groups cannabis with heroin should check their calendar to see whether they’re living in the right decade. But also: WADA implicitly acknowledged that cannabis is not used to improve performance, so why is it banned at all? If Richardson used weed to cope with the news that her biological mother died, as she said, or for any other reason, who cares?

How about a little common sense here? Can you imagine a sprinter finishing second in Tokyo, then complaining because the winner smoked a joint the week before?

For doping agencies to have credibility with athletes and the public, they need to earn it. Pot is not a performance-enhancing drug for athletes. This is as clear as can be. Richardson broke a rule; this doesn’t mean she cheated. It means the rule is dumb.

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