The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) looks set to keep marijuana on the list of banned substances for athletes, despite fierce pressure for reform following the Olympic suspension of US runner Sha’Carri Richardson for a positive cannabis test last year and the world body saying it would conduct a review of the drug’s status.
Amid the fallout from the suspension, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said international rules “need to change”, the White House and President Joe Biden himself signaled it was time for new policies and congressional lawmakers amplified that message.
However, a WADA spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal in an article published Monday that “to date, neither U.S. authorities nor the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency have requested the removal of cannabis from the List of prohibitions”.
This lack of a formalized request appears to have helped shape WADA’s 2023 draft prohibited list, the details of which have been released by representatives from the Netherlands. This country had argued for the total removal of marijuana as a banned substance, arguing that it was not a performance-enhancing drug. The draft rules are expected to be finalized later this month.
USADA CEO Travis Tygart appeared to push back against the idea that the US body was not encouraging change, narrative the Journal that, for decades, the organization “advocated for the AMA to change its approach to marijuana so that a positive test was not a violation unless it was intentionally used to enhance the performance or endanger the health or safety of competitors”.
This nuance could help explain the apparent disconnect in messaging, as it appears USADA still wanted to keep the door open to some form of penalty for athletes if their cannabis use was “intentionally” for enhancement purposes. performance – a standard that could be difficult to enforce. .
Dutch officials – including those representing the government’s Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, the Dutch Olympic Committee and the Dutch Anti-Doping Authority –said clearly in response to the proposal to maintain the cannabis ban that “we do not agree with the decision”.
“In our view, cannabinoids should not be part of the anti-doping program,” they wrote. “Cannabinoids most likely have a negative impact on athletic performance. The current scientific review does not change this view.
WADA, for its part, said the draft Prohibited Substances List for 2023 prepared by its Prohibited List Expert Advisory Group is “still under review.”
“WADA’s Executive Committee will be asked to approve the final version of the List at its meeting on September 23, with the List itself to be published no later than October 1 and effective January 1,” said a spokesperson at the Journal.
WADA first announced in September 2021 that it would conduct a scientific review of marijuana to determine whether it should maintain an international ban on cannabis use by athletes.
USADA previously expressed sympathy for suspended racer Richardson and indicated that it may be time to re-evaluate the marijuana ban, but then followed up with a statement that went further by explicitly calling for a policy change.
The organization wrote that “President Joe Biden best described the way forward when he said” “rules are rules,” but said those regulations may need to be reevaluated.
After Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortz (D-NY) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) sent a letter to USADA expressing interest in reforming the AMA’s cannabis policy, a separate group of lawmakers also sent a letter to the group urging change.
“We believe that cannabis does not fit the description of scientifically proven risk or harm to the athlete,” these 18 members of Congress wrote, “and USADA perpetuates the stereotypes and rhetoric fueled by the racist war on drugs by claiming its use, in private use and outside of competition, violates “the spirit of sport”.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) was among lawmakers who criticized Richardson’s suspension. He argued last year that it is hypocritical for athletes to be penalized for using marijuana when alcohol consumption is widely tolerated. And he also said that cannabis is only a performance-enhancing drug in food competitions.
At a separate Federal International Sports Commission hearing last year, a USADA representative said in response to a question from Cohen that the organization was “heartbroken” by Richardson’s case and supported the “liberalization” of current bans. However, he said the body has its hands tied when it comes to enforcing international drug policy.
Richardson, for her part, said she would feel “blessed and proud” if the attention generated by her case affected reform for other athletes.
The WADA has made it clear that the US played a key role in putting marijuana on the banned substances list for international athletes – and still had a seat at the table if they wanted a change in policy .
Richard Pound, who served as the WADA’s first president, previously told Marijuana Moment that he supports scientific scrutiny of cannabis and explained how the United States has historically had outsized influence on matters governing the code. international drug organization.
Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki initially declined to condemn Olympic officials’ punishment of Richardson when asked about the matter last summer, but later said the case had underscored the need to “review” the cannabis rules, especially after the athlete was barred from a second event that fell outside of her original 30-day suspension.
USA Track & Field also said the international cannabis penalty policy for athletes “should be reassessed.”
Meanwhile, advocates have largely embraced the internal marijuana policy reforms at other major professional sports organizations, saying they are long overdue, especially given the ever-expanding legalization movement.
MLB is among the most progressive professional sports organizations in the United States when it comes to marijuana. The league said in 2020 that players would not be punished for using cannabis while not working, but they cannot be personally sponsored by a marijuana company or hold investments in the industry.
The NFL’s drug testing policy has already changed demonstrably in 2020 as part of a collective bargaining agreement.
NFL players no longer face the possibility of being suspended from games for testing positive for any drug — not just marijuana — under a collective bargaining agreement. Instead, they will be fined. The threshold for what constitutes a positive THC test has also been raised as part of the deal.
The NBA announced in late 2020 that it was extending its policy of not randomly testing players for marijuana through the 2021-22 season. The association said it would not randomly test players for THC; however, they will continue to test “for cause” cases where players have a history of substance use.
Student-athletes who are part of the NCAA would no longer automatically lose their eligibility to play after testing positive for marijuana under rules recommended by a key committee earlier this year.
Marijuana icon Snoop Dogg, who was featured at halftime at the Super Bowl this year where a separately aired ad indirectly supported legalization, argued that sports leagues need to stop testing players for marijuana and allow them to use it as an alternative to prescription opioids. .
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Photo courtesy of Philip Stefan.