Sha’Carri Richardson, And Why Federal Legalization Of Cannabis Still Matters

Late last week, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced that 21-year-old US Olympic sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson will not be eligible to run in the 100-meter race due to testing positive for chemical substances related to cannabis during her Olympic trials. The agency handed Richardson, who does not deny her use of the drug, a month-long suspension that started on June 28th and invalidated her qualifying win in the 100-meter race. The length of the suspension still leaves room for Richardson to compete in the Olympic 4x1000 meter race if she is named to the US team. 

Richardson has publicly apologized and explained her actions, stating that she used cannabis to cope with the stress and pain of her mother’s unexpected death during her Olympic trials. Compounding that shock, Richardson learned of her mother’s death through a reporter during an interview. She explained her reaction in an interview with the Today show, saying

“‘It sent me into a state of emotional panic,’ she said, adding, ‘I didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time.’

She apologized to her fans, her family and her sponsors, saying, ‘I greatly apologize if I let you guys down, and I did.’”

To state the obvious, cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug for an Olympic sprinter or much of anyone else for that matter; the only performance I’ve enhanced through the use of cannabis is my ability to obliterate a charcuterie plate. That the USADA tests for marijuana at all is ridiculous, that an athlete can be disqualified for it is absurd. 

The part of Richardson’s story that bothers me most is the mental health aspect -  I would feel the same way about her suspension if she was using cannabis recreationally but she was specifically using it to help her deal with a very stressful and traumatic situation. The scientific studies on the use of cannabis for anxiety and depression are spotty and contradictory (thanks, War on Drugs!) but anecdotal evidence of people using cannabis to medicate for mental health issues is plentiful. One study found that among medicinal cannabis users, 64% reported that pain was their reason for using the drug, while 50% reported using it to deal with anxiety, and 34% reported using it to deal with depression. I do not doubt that millions more are using recreational cannabis to self-medicate mental health issues, be they short-term like Richardson’s or long-term issues where a person doesn’t want to go on anti-depression or anti-anxiety medications.     

The irony here is that if Richardson has chosen to drown her sorrows and anxiety in a fifth of Jim Beam we wouldn’t be having a conversation. She would have been deemed perfectly fine to compete in the 100-meter race as alcohol isn’t a banned substance. Instead, she chose to ingest a healthier substitute that, for unfathomable reasons, is still illegal on the federal level and therefore a substance that the USADA tests for. It is deeply unfair and infuriating that Richardson is being punished for dealing with her grief in a way that is not harmful to her to anyone else. 

This is why federal legalization, or at the very least the rescheduling, of cannabis still matters. Would legalization immediately remove cannabis from the USADA’s list of banned substances? I don’t know. Would the agency look foolish in keeping a federally legal substance on its banned list? Absolutely. Removing cannabis from the Schedule 1 list of controlled substances would also allow for more research to be done into the potential health benefits of cannabis, both mental and physical, which is urgently needed. While this conversation is coming too late to help Richardson, hopefully it can help the next athlete who chooses to use cannabis to cope with their physical and mental health struggles.