The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced yesterday that it will review its cannabis ban after 100-meter sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson was banned from participating in the Summer Olympic Games following a positive test for THC. Richardson won the USA Olympic Trials 100-meter sprint but was suspended for smoking marijuana to help cope with the stress of her mother's recent death.
The situation had notable similarities to a mountain biking controversy that happened nearly two decades earlier, when Gary Houseman posted the fastest time down Grouse Mountain, Canada, at the World Cup in 2003.
Two weeks before Houseman's win, he had watched his friend John Waddell nearly die at Mont Saint Anne. Waddell crashed off a massive jump, spent nearly a month in a coma, and spent years recovering from severe brain damage. In the days following the accident, no one knew whether he would survive. Houseman went home, told his dad he wasn't going to race again, and smoked a joint, he told Mike Levy, who revisited the story
Houseman did line up to race at Grouse Mountain, and his fate twisted oddly when it began to rain during his race run. He knew it was time to give the course everything he had, and he put down a heater. None of the remaining 34 riders could top his time on the increasingly treacherous track.
Gary Houseman had done the improbable, but winners are drug tested, and he knew his medal wouldn't stay with him. Six months after the victory the US Anti-Doping Agency announced that his result would be stripped and he would be fined 2,000 Swiss francs that he, to this day, has still not paid.
The disciplinary measures against athletes who test positive for THC were reduced in 2013 and again for this year
, but it remains a banned substance. When Sha'Carri Richardson put the spotlight on the therapeutic but almost certainly not performance-enhancing use of marijuana by athletes, it seemed like the issue had finally hit a tipping point. The hashtag #LetShaCarriRun
surged online as the cultural attitude toward the issue shifted dramatically in favor of letting athletes use marijuana however they will.
Now WADA is planning to review the status of the substance in 2022 "following receipt of requests from a number of stakeholders." The review will begin next year and the current policy prohibiting cannabis use in competition will continue in 2022, the Washington Post reports
WADA may be examining whether marijuana may, in fact, have performance-enhancing properties, but as of right now, the data supporting the ban is incredibly weak, Mayo Clinic physician and researcher Dr. Michael Joyner told NPR
Joyner acknowledged that some athletes in some sports - archery, for example - could conceivably benefit from a substance that would help them relax, but there's essentially no data to suggest that marijuana actually does have a positive effect on their performance in those sports. In a sport like mountain biking, where relaxation is important but there are also other important factors like physical strength, muscular endurance, mental sharpness, and precision, THC seems even less likely to have any benefit at all.
WADA's code states that some substances are prohibited "because they are frequently abused in society outside of the context of sport" and it seems likely that cannabis falls under this banner. As attitudes around marijuana use continue to change, perhaps a reversal of the ban will allow the WADA to focus its efforts on performance-enhancing doping instead.