Sha’Carri Richardson, who dominated Olympic trials last month in the 100m dash, could miss the Tokyo games after testing positive for marijuana, the second US star athlete to face suspension over the drug this year.
The 21-year-old athlete won the women’s 100-meter race at the US track and field trials in Oregon last month, but her positive test invalidates her score, jeopardising her placement in international competition.
She has explained that she used the drug to help cope with the death of her mother – news that she unexpectedly learned from a reporter during an interview.
Marijuana is also legal in Oregon. It was the first state to decriminalise possession for small amounts – nearly 50 years ago – and nonmedical recreation use was legalised in 2014, followed by the legalisation of sales at dispensaries in 2015.
There are now fewer states that have not legalised cannabis in any way than states with laws that lifted the prohibition on pot.
Ms Richard’s suspension marks the latest high-profile case revealing the growing disparities between widespread state and local legalisation efforts and how the federal government, and groups that follow its guidance, still technically view pot.
The decision from the United State Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is a “testament to the absurdity of our cannabis policies both in the United States and across the world”, said Marijuana Policy Project deputy director Matthew Schweich.
“Athletes can drink endless amounts of alcohol – a substance that you can overdose on – but have their dreams destroyed for using cannabis,” he said.
The organisation , the nation’s leading cannabis policy group, called her suspension “an absurd act of injustice”.
“The fact that Sha’Carri Richardson used cannabis as a means to cope with the tragic loss of her mother makes this punishment even more heartless,” Marijuana Policy Project said.
The USADA is not a government organisation. It is recognised by Congress as the drug-testing body for US Olympic sports, and it is partially funded through the US Office of National Drug Control Policy – reinforcing the same outdated federal drug policy that the president, most members of Congress and most Americans believe should be replaced.
Marijuana is banned by the World Anti-Doping Association, which the USADA follows, referencing a decade-old guidance from the global organisation that the drug “poses a health risk to athletes” and “has the potential to enhance performance” and “violates the spirit of sport”.
The USADA’s announcement of Ms Richardson’s suspension focused on the drug as a “substance of abuse” – it does not mention performance enhancement.
A study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine in 2018 found that “there is no evidence for cannabis use as a performance-enhancing drug”.
The agency announced her one-month suspension – beginning on 28 June – on 1 July, potentially clearing her in time for the games, if she is named to the US team.
In sharp contrast, the National Football League – with a combined $91bn net worth among its 32 franchises – will not suspend players for positive test results during the offseason, effective this season. The NBA stopped random testing for marijuana last year.
The NFL will not test players for the drug in its testing window during the off-season, only during the opening of training camps in August, and the organisation raised the threshold for a “positive” test result from 35 nanograms to 150 – the same under Olympic rules. In the NFL, positive tests will instead result only in fines of up to three weeks’ pay.
Nearly half of US states have legalised marijuana for recreational use, and combined with states that have legalised its medical use, including states with pending laws to decriminalise possession, that leaves only a dozen states without any laws in place to do so.
Within the past year, voters have passed every single ballot measure in state and local elections across the US to legalise cannabis.
Virginia – among three states with legalisation laws going into effect on 1 July – became the first southern state to legalise possession of up to an ounce of weed.
In March, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation into law that effectively legalises the possession of up to three ounces and creates “automatic expungement” of previous marijuana convictions for possession that is no longer criminalised – a move that will impact thousands of New Yorkers and begin to reverse decades of damage from a war on drugs that has disproportionately targeted people of colour.
But those laws still technically fly against a federal prohibition that classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal to possess under federal law.
Though it remains illegal under federal law, its recreational use has not been a priority for federal law enforcement, leaving application of the law – from how it is policed to the sentences handed down in court – up to states.
This week, US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative member of the court, criticised the federal government’s “half-in, half-out regime that simultaneously tolerates and forbids local use of marijuana” – echoing an argument he made more than a decade earlier.
Some local jurisdictions have tossed the cases out altogether – Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has dismissed 4,500 marijuana cases, and New Orleans District Attorney has refused to prosecute altogether any charges for possession of small amounts or all drugs (except heroin and fentanyl).
The moves coincide with the overwhelming public demand, from more than 90 per cent of Americans, that marijuana should be legal for medical or recreational use, according to the Pew Research Center.
House Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have pledged to introduce federal legalization legislation, Joe Biden could potentially sign it, and support among voters is at an all-time high – seemingly no better time in American history to replace the nation’s outdated policies and end the racist war on pot that has jailed nearly 16 million people in the last decade alone.
Instead, the patchwork of state and local laws against a federal prohibition has baked in some existing disparities while exposing Americans to outdated policies that adhere to exceedingly outdated federal guidance.
According to the Last Prisoner Project, roughly 40,000 people are currently imprisoned for marijuana offences, among the nearly 16 million people arrested for pot-related offences within the last decade.
Meanwhile, revenue from legal cannabis sales in 2018 totalled more than $10bn, the group found.
“While we cheer the newfound freedoms that today brings, we are appalled that hundreds of thousands of Americans continue to be arrested each year for cannabis,” said Marijuana Policy Project director Steven Hawkins. “It’s past time every state and the federal government replace marijuana prohibition with equitable legalization and regulation.”