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Sha’Carri Richardson and the Long Road to Marijuana Reform in Sports

Last Updated: October 5, 2021
“The negative stigma surrounding cannabis is rooted in outdated, racist thinking,” ex-NBA player and marijuana entrepreneur Al Harrington tells Boardroom.

The Tokyo Olympics arrive this week, bringing with them no shortage of narratives regarding the role of sports in modern society. From reckoning with the continuing difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic to the global march for social justice, the Summer Games bring the world together at a uniquely critical, challenging time.

And against this backdrop, there’s also an ever-present conversation at the intersection of performance, policy, and accountability that’s long past needing to be settled.

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Earlier this month, American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was barred from competing in the Tokyo Games after testing positive for cannabis. This came on the heels of an amazing Olympic Trials performance in which Richardson qualified for the women’s 100-yard dash in dominating fashion. She collapsed in tears into her grandmother’s arms afterward.

Her emotions were realer than real — Richardson’s mother had passed away just days before the qualifying races.

In the fallout from the news, superstar athletes like Dwyane Wade, Natasha Cloud, and Patrick Mahomes voiced support for Richardson, and a MoveOn.org petition entitled “Let Sha’Carri Run!” has collected nearly 600,000 signatures as of this writing. Her suspension and effective ban only added even more accelerant to the flames of a debate that refuses to go away: the question of what cannabis’ ultimate role in sports ought to be.

Notably, Richardson’s positive marijuana test was a product of using the substance in Oregon, where the practice is legalized. But as of now, it’s not permitted in any form by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which oversees all drug testing for Team USA.

Weed and its related products and preparations are not “performance-enhancing drugs,” full stop. They do not artificially enhance athletic performance or grant physical advantages over competitors.

And as the country loosens its stance on cannabinoids at long last — 36 states permit medical use and 18 allow recreational use — USADA’s official list of banned substances looks not just obsolete, but inane.

And to help zero in on the state of marijuana and hemp in sports, Boardroom caught up with Al Harrington, a former NBA veteran and cannabis industry entrepreneur. Harrington is the founder of Viola, a company that creates products for recreational and therapeutic use, and is one of the leading advocates for cannabinoid-based wellness.

In light of Richardson’s plight and the return of the Olympics, he provided valuable insight on what’s in store in the months and years to come. “Her ban really highlights the need for the USADA and Olympics as a whole to revisit the rules and regulations and determine what needs to be updated to reflect modern-day society,” he told Boardroom. “When you think of the impact the other drugs have on your body in comparison to cannabis, there’s no question that it shouldn’t be included on [USADA’s] list.”

“Professional athletes put their bodies through so much to compete at that level, and we should be able to medicate ourselves safely. Everybody is different, [but] I personally use cannabis for pain relief, relaxation, and sleep,” he said. “Towards the end of my career after all my surgeries and previous injuries, had I been able to use cannabis, I fully believe that I could’ve played another three to four years. The research is just getting started on how the medicinal qualities of cannabis can benefit athletes and people in general. It’s important that we get rid of the stigma around cannabis use so we can get more research.”

But breaking through that stigma — one that disproportionately harms historically oppressed communities — requires fundamental, systemic change. Cannabis is generally classified alongside other, more harmful drugs like heroin, MDMA, and cocaine both by sports regulators and national governments. According to USADA, this is due to cannabinoids being “abused by society outside of the context of sports.”

Harrington insists that such a designation is dangerously outdated.

“The negative stigma surrounding cannabis is rooted in outdated and racist thinking that serves no purpose for the general public, and I would hope we’ve moved past as a society,” he said.

Progress has definitely been made towards full legalization and decriminalization of cannabis. Alongside the tremendous research now going into the benefits of use, tangible forward momentum has been created. But there is a long way to go and hopefully governing bodies in the United States recognize the true gain of cannabis use helps athletes in ways that do not harm themselves or others.

In the big picture, Harrington has hope. But despite all the progress made both legally and culturally with regards to cannabis, it’s hard to look at the Sha’Carri Richardson fiasco and not see a debacle that USADA, the International Olympic Committee, and USA Track and Field could have taken measures to avoid.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but there’s still progress to be made and a lot of that can be done with proper education and a willingness to have open and honest conversations,” Harrington said.