Cannabis is a lot of things — but a dangerous, performance-enhancing drug whose occasional use merits suspension from athletic competition? That’s a stretch, to say the least, according to experts.
On Friday, a chorus of physicians, athletes, and policy advocates who specialize in marijuana denounced USA Track and Field’s one-month suspension of American track star Sha’Carri Richardson, who tested positive for THC metabolites after smoking pot to cope with the recent death of her biological mother.
The sanction, which was reduced from three months because Richardson agreed to participate in drug counseling, means the 21-year-old will miss a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in her signature event, the 100-meter dash, during the Tokyo Olympics, which open July 23. (USATF could still select her as a runner on its relay team).
But do such rules against cannabis use by athletes have any scientific grounding? Harvard Medical School instructor and cannabis expert Dr. Peter Grinspoon sharply questioned the rationale for the ban provided by the US Anti-Doping Agency, which says on its website that cannabis unfairly enhances performance, poses health risks to athletes and even their competitors, and that its use “violates the spirit of sport.”
“My reaction to that is, ‘what, what, and what?’ " an exasperated Grinspoon said in an interview. “What spirit? The ghost of the drug war? It’d be comical if it wasn’t so tragic to this young woman’s career.”
In reality, Grinspoon said, marijuana is more akin to ibuprofen than anabolic steroids or human growth hormone: It has a remarkably benign safety profile, and while its compounds may help athletes by treating their pain, sleeplessness, or anxiety — often with fewer side effects and a lower risk of dependence than pharmaceuticals that are allowed by anti-doping authorities — they offer no direct benefit to performance.
“Even if it helps some people treat an illness or get into a calm ‘flow state,’ you won’t find any studies proving cannabis as a physical performance-enhancer,” he said. Instead, “millions of people across the world use cannabis as a less harmful, plant-based alternative to opiates, benzodiazepines, sedating muscle relaxants, Ambien — the list goes on and on.”
In terms of harm, Grinspoon added, Richardson’s highly public punishment will almost certainly cause far more trauma than the toking that precipitated it, he said. Sports bodies should be offering her therapy and other support, he said, not “mindlessly imposing 1950s morals.”
“Which is going to be worse for her? Having used cannabis, or having been tested for it and stripped of her chance to compete in the Olympics,?” Grinspoon asked rhetorically. “It’s so backwards, and such a disproportionate consequence.”
Joanna Sue Zeiger, a onetime professional triathlete who represented the United States at the 2000 Summer Olympics and also a cannabis researcher who holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, agreed that marijuana helps athletes treat a variety of maladies but doesn’t make them faster or stronger — and in fact could just as easily hurt performance by fouling an athlete’s lungs or making the heart or mind race.
She called restrictions on marijuana use by athletes “draconian,” and urged fans to view Richardson’s marijuana use through a compassionate lens.
“People don’t appreciate the pressure that goes along with pleasing sponsors, pleasing your team, and trying to achieve your competitive goals,” she said. “Now add a family tragedy right before the Olympic trials? That would be difficult for anybody. There are people who are intentionally doping to win, but here you have an athlete who’s just trying to cope, and those are two very different things. The reaction to her has been so unfair.”
Most major US sports leagues have relaxed or dropped marijuana-testing requirements in recent years, shifting instead to more nuanced approaches that provide support to those who are actually abusing the drug while allowing medical use and modest recreational consumption.
That evolution mirrors a rapid change in public opinion about marijuana over the past decade, a period that saw numerous states legalize the drug. Today, dozens of former professional athletes such as Paul Pierce are jumping into the legal pot business, with many saying the drug helped them treat pain and other ailments during their careers.
International anti-doping authorities recently raised the allowable threshold from 15 to 150 nanograms of THC metabolite per milliliter of blood, a change meant to differentiate the use of marijuana during competition from off-hours consumption. They also created a narrow exception allowing the use of CBD, a cannabinoid that’s less impairing than THC and may offer a variety of health benefits.
But Grinspoon, Zeiger, and other experts criticized that framework, noting that peer-reviewed research has found drastic variations in how quickly and thoroughly different individuals metabolize the primary high-causing component of marijuana, with some people testing positive weeks after their last joint. Zeiger also noted that it’s nearly impossible as a practical matter to correlate a given level of THC in one’s blood to a particular quantity of cannabis.
“How many joints or edibles do you have to consume to go over 150 and trigger that positive result? Nobody knows,” she said, describing the dilemma posed to athletes by the half-in, half-out rule.
The only solution, she said, is for authorities to drop marijuana from the list of banned substances altogether, with a possible exception for sports such as the luge, where impairment and slow reaction times could be dangerous.
Kassandra Frederique, the executive director of the national Drug Policy Alliance, said Richardson’s plight illustrates the injustice of marijuana prohibition, which routinely leads to consequences ranging from firings to arrests to deportations, especially for Black Americans. She said criticism of the track star was unwarranted and hypocritical.
“It goes to show that even top athletes in this country have to deal with the same things that happen in neighborhoods of color every day,” she said. “We lauded and celebrated Sha’Carri for sharing the trauma of her mother’s passing and still wowing us and competing in those trials, but then we ripped her apart for using marijuana to get her mind to a place where she was able to do that. It’s insidious and just wrong.”