The rules on marijuana for international athletes “must change,” the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said in a response letter to members of Congress on Friday following the suspension of runner Sha’Carri Richardson over a positive cannabis test. Separately, the White House is now reportedly seeking a meeting with international sports regulators to discuss the policy.
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Jamie Raskin (D-MD) recently sent a letter to the U.S. athletics governing body on the penalty against Richardson, who admitted to using marijuana in a legal state after learning about her mother’s death. Earlier this week, USADA expressed sympathy for the runner and indicated that it may be time for a reevaluation of the marijuana prohibition—but the latest statement, in a letter to the lawmakers, explicitly calls for a policy change.
At the same time, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is working to secure a meeting with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) about cannabis policies on the international sports stage. The Financial Times reported on Friday that the Biden administration intends to discuss issues “including the timeframe for testing, and the basis for the consideration of cannabis as a performance enhancing drug.”
ONDCP later on Friday sought to play down the report, tweeting that it is not seeking to pressure WADA to “loosen restrictions” or “rethink” cannabis policies for athletes but is merely seeking “additional information” on how those rules are carried out.
As stated previously, ONDCP will ask WADA to gather additional information on its cannabis policies. ONDCP did not state that it will ask WADA to “loosen restrictions” or “rethink” its policy.
— ONDCP (@ONDCP) July 10, 2021
USADA, for its part, said in its letter to Ocasio-Cortez and Raskin, that it “agrees that Ms. Richardson’s exclusion from the Tokyo Olympic Games is a heartbreaking situation and that the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules concerning marijuana must change.”
USADA’s Response Letter to Congressman Raskin and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortezhttps://t.co/D8fg7bGbzO
— USADA (@usantidoping) July 9, 2021
However, the organization said it and WADA are “in very different positions of authority and we sometimes have different views when it comes to what substances are included, or not included, on the WADA Prohibited List and what consequences result from a Positive Test.”
“The anti-doping rules are legislated by WADA based on the consensus of Stakeholders worldwide. USADA does not make or have a direct vote on the anti-doping rules but, as a WADA Code Signatory, we are required to enforce them,” it said. “During the Stakeholder comment phase of the rule-making process, USADA has advocated for more flexible and fair rules to address the use of marijuana by athletes.”
“While those rules have indeed become more flexible and fair over time, USADA has argued for still more changes and will continue to advocate for changes going forward. Because USADA is required to enforce the rules as written, however, it has gone to great lengths to ensure that all athletes are informed through our education programs of the risk and potential consequences of a positive marijuana test during competition.”
This represents the most forceful comments the nation’s top governing body on international sports has made since new broke of Richardson’s suspension. It also reveals that USADA has been pushing for a change prior to the high-profile suspension.
It said that funding could be jeopardized if the U.S. were to let Richardson compete in violation of rules mandating a 30-day ban under the UNESCO Convention Against Doping in Sport.
“Ms. Richardson’s one-month suspension was the absolute minimum sanction that USADA was permitted to impose under the Code. Anything less would have resulted in USADA being non-compliant with the WADA code,” it said. “Continued non-compliance by USADA could result in serious consequences to U.S. Athletes (inability to participate in the Olympics, World Championships and other International Competitions) and the U.S. Government (loss of seats on the WADA Foundation Board and WADA Committees and more importantly the international embarrassment to U.S. athletes that USADA’s noncompliance would cause under the UNESCO Convention and otherwise).”
“Given that Ms. Richardson voluntarily accepted the outcome, there is no longer any legal process to challenge it or to reverse it. Further, any decision by USADA to attempt to reverse Ms. Richardson’s one-month suspension would be futile. WADA, World Athletics or the IOC would have quickly appealed such a decision and may have resulted in a lengthier suspension for Ms. Richardson.”
The response letter also acknowledged that the origin of the marijuana ban was largely influenced by the U.S. government in the 1990s—something the first president of WADA touched on in a recent interview with Marijuana Moment.
And while advocates have strongly opposed the penalty against Richardson, USADA said that questions still remain as to whether marijuana should be considered a performance enhancing drug, as it “has also been reported in scientific literature and anecdotally by athletes that marijuana can decrease anxiety, fear, depression and tension thereby allowing athletes to better perform under pressure and alleviating stress experienced immediately before and during competition.”
Even so, “USADA has consistently put forward recommendations that the rules addressing cannabis and cannabinoids should be more flexible and fair,” the letter says. And while some reforms have been enacted to lessen the severity of punishments for athletes who test positive for marijuana, USADA would “go still further in mitigating the harsh consequences of a positive marijuana case in a situation like Ms. Richardson’s.”
The organization noted that USADA amended its marijuana policy for domestic professional fighting that’s not subject to WADA rules. On that note, Nevada sports regulators voted on Wednesday to make it so athletes will no longer be penalized over a positive marijuana test, with members citing Richardson’s case during the meeting as an example of why the policy is inappropriate.
“Simply put, USADA will continue to be very active in its efforts to change how marijuana is addressed under the WADA Code and Prohibited List,” the new letter states. “Given USADA’s inability to unilaterally change the rules governing marijuana in sport, USADA has gone to great lengths to ensure that all athletes are informed of the risks and potential consequences of a positive marijuana test during a competition.”
The letter concludes with a section titled “The way forward.”
USADA wrote that “President Joe Biden described the way forward best when he said” that the “rules are rules,” but those regulations may need to be reevaluated and he’s proud of Richardson for how she responded to the situation.
“So is USADA,” the group said. “USADA will continue to advocate for rule changes which would better address tragic situations like Ms. Richardson’s.”
Richardson’s suspension for using marijuana in a legal state after learning news of her mother’s death has elicited widespread calls for reform in the governing bodies of the Olympics.
On Wednesday, the White House press secretary—like USADA—expressed sympathy for the runner and indicated that it may be time for a reevaluation of the marijuana prohibition.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki previously declined to condemn Olympics officials’ sanction on Richardson when asked about the issue at a briefing with reporters last week, but she told CNN in the newer comments that the case highlights the need to “take another look” at the rules on cannabis, especially in light of the decision to bar the athlete from a second event that fell outside the scope of the 30-day suspension
USA Track & Field also said this week that international policy on cannabis punishments for athletes “should be reevaluated.”
A bipartisan collection of members of Congress slammed Richardson’s punishment last week, with Ocasio-Cortz and Raskin sending the scathing letter to USADA and WADA on behalf of key House subcommittee they respectively co-chair and chair, urging the bodies to ”strike a blow for civil liberties and civil rights by reversing this course you are on.”
A separate group of lawmakers also sent a letter to USADA on Friday to urge a policy change.
“We believe that cannabis does not meet the description of scientifically proven risk or harm to the athlete,” those 18 lawmakers wrote, “and the USADA is perpetuating stereotypes and rhetoric fueled by the racist War on Drugs by claiming its usage, in private use and outside of competition, violates the ‘spirit of the sport.’”
Advocates have broadly embraced internal marijuana policy reforms at other major professional athletic organizations, arguing that they are long overdue especially given the ever-expanding legalization movement.
NFL’s drug testing policy changed demonstrably last year as part of a collective bargaining agreement, for example. Under the policy, NFL players will not face the possibility of being suspended from games over positive tests for any drug—not just marijuana.
In a similar vein, the MLB decided in 2019 to remove cannabis from the league’s list of banned substances. Baseball players can consume marijuana without risk of discipline, but officials clarified last year that they can’t work while under the influence and can’t enter into sponsorship contracts with cannabis businesses, at least for the time being.
Meanwhile, a temporary NBA policy not to randomly drug test players for marijuana amid the coronavirus pandemic may soon become permanent, the league’s top official said in December. Rather than mandate blanket tests, Commissioner Adam Silver said the league would be reaching out to players who show signs of problematic dependency, not those who are “using marijuana casually.”
For what it’s worth, a new poll from YouGov found that women are notably more likely to oppose Richardson’s suspension than men are.
Read the new statement from USADA on Richardson’s marijuana-related suspension below:
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.