Doping in sport: should cannabis be on the list of banned substances?

World Anti-Doping Agency will launch a scientific review next year

US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson missed the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for cannabis
Sha’Carri Richardson missed the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for cannabis
(Image credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

When US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson missed the Tokyo Olympic Games after testing positive for a chemical found in cannabis, her suspension “reignited a long debate over marijuana prohibition in Olympic sports”, said the BBC’s Robin Levinson-King.

Considered a top contender for the 100m, Richardson tested positive during the US Olympic Track & Field trials in June and was given a one-month suspension. The 21-year-old said she had used cannabis as a way of coping with the death of her biological mother and not to boost performance. Her exclusion became a matter of “heated debate”, Scientific American reported at the time.

“Don’t judge me, because I am human, I just happen to run a little faster,” she told NBC’s Today show. “I apologise for the fact that I didn’t even know how to control my emotions or deal with that during that time.”

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‘Substance of abuse’

The 2021 World Anti-Doping Code classifies tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis, marijuana, and hashish - as a “substance of abuse”, Inside The Games reported. Athletes found to use it outside of competition face a three-month ban, but in Richardson’s case it was reduced to 30 days by the United States Anti-Doping Agency as long as she also undertook a treatment programme.

With cannabis legal in many states across America, why is it still outlawed in sports, the BBC’s Levinson-King asks. “Given that its performance-enhancing properties are disputed, many wonder why cannabis should still be banned.”

Scientific review

Richardson’s suspension sparked an outpouring of sympathy and calls for a review of anti-doping rules, The Guardian reported. And yesterday the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) announced it will launch a “scientific review” into cannabis’s status as a banned substance.

“Following receipt of requests from a number of stakeholders, the Executive Committee endorsed the decision of the List Expert Advisory Group to initiate in 2022 a scientific review of the status of cannabis,” Wada said in a statement. “Cannabis is currently prohibited in competition and will continue to be in 2022.”

Since Wada published its “prohibited list” in 2004, cannabinoids have been banned in all sports during competition. Drugs are prohibited if they meet two of three criteria: they harm the health of the athlete; are performance enhancing; are against the spirit of sport.

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