The suspension of US runner Sha’Carri Richardson for a positive marijuana test has led many to call for changes to the rules of the Olympics – even President Joe Biden, senior White House officials and US sports regulators have said maybe it was time to reconsider punishing athletes for cannabis. .
But how was the sports ban imposed in the first place? Marijuana Moment spoke with the first president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to gain a better understanding of the political unfolding, which turns out to be the result of pressure from the United States itself.
Some of those who defended the action against Richardson have argued that since cannabis is strictly banned in other countries, it would make no sense to rule out an international rule just because legalization is progressing in the United States. . it was the United States in the 1990s that played the main role in bullying the sports governing body to add cannabis to the list of banned substances for the Olympics.
For example, US drug tsar Barry McCaffrey, who served under President Bill Clinton, sent a 10-page memo to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1998 that said the games “must adopt a comprehensive drug program” which should include punishment for participants who test positive for recreational drugs like marijuana, according to Associated Press report at the time.
“We elevate Olympic athletes to international pedestals so that all the children of the world will see them as role models – it is vital that the message they send is drug-free,” McCaffrey, then head of the Bureau of National Control Policy drugs from the White House. (ONDCP), which provided $ 1 million in funding to IOC to combat drug use, said. “The goal of all this effort must be to prevent the Olympic medals and the Olympic movement from being tarnished by drugs.”
In this way, the aggressive push by the United States to criminalize drugs in their country has translated into political positions on the world athletics stage. And the Clinton administration was proud to influence the IOC to enact change, touting its efforts in a 2000 ONDCP report on “agency accomplishments and significant actions.”
Following the news that a Canadian snowboarder who won a gold medal tested positive for marijuana, ONDCP “is seriously concerned about the impact of this victory on the attitude of young people towards drugs” , according to the report of the Tsar’s Drug Office.
The medal “seemed to directly undermine our messages to young people that drug use compromises a child’s chances of success,” she said. continued. “ONDCP has launched a wave of efforts to get the IOC to ban marijuana from gambling. In short, these efforts were successful and the IOC banned marijuana.
Richard Pound, who was WADA’s first president, spoke to Marijuana Moment about the origins of the cannabis ban and said the United States was “really adamant that [cannabis] was on the list ”of prohibited substances.
“The United States was a leader in saying – and it was the ONDCP that was saying it – ‘in our opinion, marijuana is the entry level drug. If you can stop people from using marijuana, they won’t switch to cocaine and heroin and other chemical variations of those things.
Pound, who represented Canada as a swimmer at the Olympics and then served as IOC Vice President before leading WADA, said he initially had a strained relationship with McCaffrey as the ONDCP took over. position that “essentially nothing we did or wanted or proposed was all good.
But after calling for a White House meeting to review common principles and policies, the official said “well, it doesn’t look like we have any significant differences at all,” according to Pound, and the relationship has become productive. .
Pound told Marijuana Moment that he believes the international committee that decides on substance bans should review cannabis and he personally believes the policy could be changed to make a positive THC test liable to a warning without threat of suspension. . He is puzzled that the U.S. team has decided to penalize Richardson beyond the internationally mandated 30-day ban by choosing not to let her run in a relay that falls outside that window.
“I would have thought, at first glance, that it would make sense to try to have your best team on the pitch,” he said. In a recent interview along with the Washington Post, he also said he believed WADA’s drug code would soon be amended to exclude marijuana from the list of banned substances.
For what it’s worth, said McCaffrey Politics that he doesn’t remember pushing specifically for a ban on cannabis and that he focused more on performance enhancing drugs like steroids. And Pound said he could not recall any specific conversations he had with the then ONDCP director about marijuana policy.
“Whether there was a full Barry buy-in or not, I don’t remember discussing it,” Pound said. “But that was certainly the US point of view. Whether it was a ditch he was willing to die in or not, I don’t know. But it was definitely an American position.
He added that although the United States had an inordinate influence on these types of issues, the desire to add cannabis to the list of banned substances was “shared by many, many, many other countries.”
Either way, Richardson’s suspension for using marijuana in a legal state after hearing news of his mother’s death prompted numerous calls for reform of the Olympic Games governing bodies.
The White House press secretary and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) both expressed sympathy for the runner on Wednesday and said it may be time to reassess the marijuana ban.
Press secretary Jen Psaki previously refused to condemn the Olympics officials’ sanction against Richardson when asked about the matter at a briefing with reporters last week, but she said to CNN in the new comments that the case highlighted the need to “watch another look” at the cannabis rules, particularly in light of the decision to ban the athlete from a second event that does not did not fall under the 30 day suspension
USA Track & Field also said this week that the international policy on cannabis-related sanctions for athletes “should be reassessed.”
Biden said on Saturday that while “rules are rules” he also suggested there was an open question as to whether “they should remain the rules.” And that’s remarkable for a president who has maintained opposition to legalizing adult use.
A bipartisan group of members of Congress criticized Richardson’s punishment last week, with leaders of a key House subcommittee sending a scathing letter to the United States Anti-Doping Agency and the Anti-Doping Agency, urging the bodies to “strike a blow at civil liberties and civil rights by reversing this path on which you are on.”
A separate group of lawmakers also sent a letter to USADA on Friday urging a policy change.
“We believe cannabis does not fit the description of a scientifically proven risk or harm to the athlete,” they wrote, “and USADA perpetuates stereotypes and rhetoric fueled by racist warfare against drugs by claiming its use, in private and outside use. of competition, violates the “spirit of sport”.
Meanwhile, Nevada sports regulators voted on Wednesday to ensure that athletes no longer face penalties for testing positive for marijuana, with members citing Richardson’s case at the meeting as an example of why the policy is inappropriate.
Advocates have broadly embraced internal marijuana policy reforms in other major professional sports organizations, arguing they were long overdue, especially given the ever-expanding legalization movement.
The NFL’s drug testing policy changed demonstrably last year through a collective agreement, for example. Under this policy, NFL players will not be subject to suspension from games for testing positive for a drug, not just for marijuana.
In a similar vein, the MLB decided in 2019 to remove cannabis from the league’s list of banned substances. Baseball players can use marijuana without the risk of discipline, but officials clarified last year that they cannot work under the influence and cannot enter into sponsorship deals with cannabis companies, cannabis companies. less at the moment.
Meanwhile, a temporary NBA policy of not randomly testing drug players for marijuana amid the coronavirus pandemic may soon become permanent, the league’s senior official said in December. Rather than impose general tests, Commissioner Adam Silver said the league would contact players who show signs of problematic addiction, not those who “casually use marijuana.”
For what it’s worth, a new poll from YouGov found that notably women are more likely to oppose Richardson’s suspension than men.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus call on Biden to quash marijuana deportation cases
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.