The suspension of U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson over a positive marijuana test has led many to call for changes to Olympics rules—with even President Joe Biden, top White House officials and American sports regulators saying it might be time to reconsider punishing athletes for cannabis.
But how did the sports prohibition get imposed in the first place? Marijuana Moment spoke to the first president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to gain further insights into how the policy unfolded, which turns out to be the result of pressure from the U.S. itself.
Some of those who’ve defended the action against Richardson have made the case that, since cannabis is strictly prohibited in other countries, it wouldn’t make sense to set aside an international rule just because legalization is advancing in the U.S. But in reality, it was the U.S. in the 1990s that played the leading role in bullying the athletic governing body to add cannabis to the list of banned substances for the Olympics in the first place.
For example, then-U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey, who served under President Bill Clinton, sent a 10-page memo to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1998 that said the games “must adopt a comprehensive anti-drug program” that should include punishing participants who test positive for recreational drugs like marijuana, according to an Associated Press report at the time.
“We raise Olympic athletes up on international pedestals for all the world’s children to look up to as role models—it is vital that the message they send is drug free,″ McCaffrey, then the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which provided $1 million in funding to IOC to combat drug use, said. “The goal of this whole effort must be to prevent Olympic medals and the Olympic movement from being tarnished by drugs.″
In this way, the U.S.’s aggressive push to criminalize drugs at home translated into policy positions on the world athletics stage. And the Clinton administration prided itself on influencing IOC to enact the change, touting its efforts in a 2000 ONDCP report on “Agency Accomplishments and Significant Actions.”
Following news that a Canadian snowboarder who won a gold medal tested positive for marijuana, ONDCP “become seriously concerned about the impact of this victory on youth attitudes toward drugs,” the report from the drug czar’s office said.
The medal “seemed to directly undercut our messages to young people that drug use undermines a child’s opportunities for success,” it continued. “ONDCP began a wave of efforts to get the IOC to ban marijuana from the games. In short course, these efforts were successful and the IOC banned marijuana.”
Richard Pound, who served as the first president of WADA, spoke to Marijuana Moment about the origins of the cannabis ban and said that the U.S. was “really quite adamant that [cannabis] was on the list” of prohibited substances.
“The U.S. was a leader in saying—and this was the ONDCP saying this—’in our view, marijuana is the entry-level drug. If you can keep people from using marijuana, they don’t graduate to cocaine and heroin and some of the other the other chemical variations of these things.’”
Pound, who represented Canada as a swimmer in the Olympics and then served as vice president of IOC before leading WADA, said he initially had a strained relationship with McCaffrey, as ONDCP had taken a position that “basically nothing we did or wanted or proposed was was any good.”
But after requesting a meeting at the White House to go over shared principles and policies, the official said “well, it doesn’t sound like we have any significant differences at all,” according to Pound, and the relationship became productive.
Pound told Marijuana Moment that he feels the international committee that decides on substance bans should take another look at cannabis and he personally believes the policy could be amended to make a positive THC test punishable by a warning without the threat of suspension. He’s perplexed that Team USA decided to penalize Richardson beyond the internationally prescribed 30-day ban by choosing not to let her run in a relay that falls outside of that window.
“I would have thought, on the face of things, it would make sense to try and have your best team in the field,” he said. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, he also said that he felt the WADA drug code would soon be amended in to exclude marijuana from the banned substances list.
For what it’s worth, McCaffrey told Politico that he doesn’t recall pushing for the cannabis ban specifically and was more focused on performance enhancing drugs like steroids. And Pound said he couldn’t recall any specific conversation he had with the then-ONDCP director on marijuana policy.
“Whether it had a full buy-in from Barry or not, I can’t recall discussing it,” Pound said. “But that was certainly the the view of the United States. Whether it was a ditch that he was prepared to die in or not, I don’t know. But it certainly was a U.S. position.”
He added that while the U.S. had an outsized influence on these types of matters, the desire to add cannabis to the list of banned substances was “shared by many, many, many other countries.”
In any case, Richardson’s suspension for using marijuana in a legal state after learning news of her mother’s death has elicited widespread calls for reform in the governing bodies of the Olympics.
On Wednesday, the White House press secretary and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) both expressed sympathy for the runner and indicated that it may be time for a reevaluation of the marijuana prohibition.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki previously declined to condemn Olympics officials’ sanction on Richardson when asked about the issue at a briefing with reporters last week, but she told CNN in the newer comments that the case highlights the need to “take another look” at the rules on cannabis, especially in light of the decision to bar the athlete from a second event that fell outside the scope of the 30-day suspension
USA Track & Field also said this week that international policy on cannabis punishments for athletes “should be reevaluated.”
Biden said on Saturday that while “rules are rules,” he also suggested that there’s an open question about whether “they should remain the rules.” And that’s notable for a president who has maintained an opposition to adult-use legalization.
A bipartisan collection of members of Congress slammed Richardson’s punishment last week, with leaders of a key House subcommittee sending a scathing letter to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the Anti-Doping Agency, urging the bodies to ”strike a blow for civil liberties and civil rights by reversing this course you are on.”
A separate group of lawmakers also sent a letter to USADA on Friday to urge a policy change.
“We believe that cannabis does not meet the description of scientifically proven risk or harm to the athlete,” they wrote, “and the USADA is perpetuating stereotypes and rhetoric fueled by the racist War on Drugs by claiming its usage, in private use and outside of competition, violates the ‘spirit of the sport.’”
Meanwhile, Nevada sports regulators voted on Wednesday to make it so athletes will no longer be penalized over a positive marijuana test, with members citing Richardson’s case during the meeting as an example of why the policy is inappropriate.
Advocates have broadly embraced internal marijuana policy reforms at other major professional athletic organizations, arguing that they are long overdue especially given the ever-expanding legalization movement.
NFL’s drug testing policy changed demonstrably last year as part of a collective bargaining agreement, for example. Under the policy, NFL players will not face the possibility of being suspended from games over positive tests for any drug—not just marijuana.
In a similar vein, the MLB decided in 2019 to remove cannabis from the league’s list of banned substances. Baseball players can consume marijuana without risk of discipline, but officials clarified last year that they can’t work while under the influence and can’t enter into sponsorship contracts with cannabis businesses, at least for the time being.
Meanwhile, a temporary NBA policy not to randomly drug test players for marijuana amid the coronavirus pandemic may soon become permanent, the league’s top official said in December. Rather than mandate blanket tests, Commissioner Adam Silver said the league would be reaching out to players who show signs of problematic dependency, not those who are “using marijuana casually.”
For what it’s worth, a new poll from YouGov found that women are notably more likely to oppose Richardson’s suspension than men are.
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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.