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Sha'Carri Richardson's Suspension from Tokyo Olympics Sparks Conversation About Athletes & Marijuana

By Jennifer Roback

Photo of Sha'Carri Richardson vis her Instagram

Sha'Carri Richardson, 21, is an American Sprinter who qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after finishing first at the Olympic Track and Field trials in Oregon on June 19, 2021.

Following a positive marijuana test, she was then suspended from the Olympics for 30 days by the United States Anti-Doping Association and unable to compete in the 100-meter dash.

Since the suspension, she has sparked a conversation about athletes and the use of marijuana and how the policies in place do not match up with the increased legalization throughout the United States.

"Who are you? Who am I to tell you how to cope when you're dealing with a pain or you're dealing with a struggle that you've never experienced before or that you never thought you'd have to deal with. Who am I to tell you how to cope? Who am I to tell you you're wrong for hurting?" Richardson said on TODAY following her suspension. "We all have our different struggles, we all have our different things we deal with, but to put on a face and have to go out in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain."

Richardson revealed that she used marijuana to cope with learning from a reporter that her biological mother had passed away. In 45 states, including the state where she was at the time of consumption, the use of marijuana is either fully legal or allowed for medical use.

The Anti-Doping Association is one of the few athletic organizations that have not made any new changes to policies since the use of the non-performance enhancing drug has started to become more legalized.

Almost all American sports leagues including, the NFL, MLB, and NBA have reevaluated their policies on marijuana. In April 2020, the NFL announced in their new collective bargaining agreement that athletes cannot be punished for just the use of marijuana alone.

While the NBA still has penalties for athletes including, fines and suspension, they have become lenient when it comes to the use of marijuana.

"Some guys are smoking pot just in the same way a guy would take a drink. And it's like whatever, 'Smoking pot, I'm just using it to come down a little bit or I just want to relax.' No big deal. No issue. And I think it's the reason why it has been legalized in a lot of states. And from that standpoint, if that were the only issue, maybe we're behind the times in our program," said NBA commissioner Adam Silver in an interview with Yahoo Sports in 2019.

The MLB also has limited policies on marijuana, where they only test with a "reasonable cause."

Following the announcement of her suspension, #LetShaCarriRun began trending on Twitter, and pro athletes stepped in to show their support for her.

"In a world where people literally make millions upon millions growing and selling it! Y'all ever heard of a fine?"Dwyane Wade tweeted.

Athletes are not the only ones supporting Richardson during this time, her sponsor, Nike, also released a statement following the suspension saying, “We appreciate Sha’Carri’s honesty and accountability and will continue to support her through this time.”

USA Track and Field also commented saying, “Sha’Carri Richardson’s situation is incredibly unfortunate and devastating for everyone involved. Athlete health and well-being continue to be one of USATF’s most critical priorities and we will work with Sha’Carri to ensure she has ample resources to overcome any mental health challenges now and in the future.”

There have been a few reasons why major leagues have lightened the punishments for marijuana. Those reasons include the legalization behind it, and also because the substance does not enhance performance.

In a case study published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, it was determined that cannabis is beneficial for pain relief but does not enhance performance.

"Although cannabis use is more prevalent in some athletes engaged in high-risk sports, there is no direct evidence of performance-enhancing effects in athletes. The potential beneficial effects of cannabis as part of a pain management protocol, including reducing concussion-related symptoms, deserve further attention."

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) even commented on Richardson's suspension and said how drug testing and punishing athletes for consumption in their off-hours does not make sense for athletes.

“Sha'Carri Richardson, like millions of her fellow Americans, turned to cannabis’ therapeutic benefits to help her cope with the tragic loss of her mother," said NORML executive director Erik Altieri to NBC. "To use this as a rationale for denying this athlete, who is otherwise competing at the top of her sport, the ability to represent the United States at the Tokyo Olympics should be an unacceptable outcome in this situation. Let Richardson race.”

During the Olympic trials, Richardson ran the 100-meters race in 10.86 seconds and sparked hopes that the US might come home with a gold medal win for the first time since Gail Devers back in 1996.

While there is still time for the ban to be lifted and allow Richardson to compete, she has said that she is using this time to reflect on herself.

"If I'm allowed to receive that blessing to compete in Tokyo then I'm grateful for it," Richardson said. "But if not, right now I'm just going to focus on myself."

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