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EXPLAINED: How Cannabis Impacts Performance And Why Top US Sprinter Was Banned For Marijuana Use

By: Kenneth Mohanty


Last Updated: July 04, 2021, 15:31 IST

Sha'Carri Richardson

Sha'Carri Richardson

Marijuana just cost one of the hottest US athletes her place at the 100m at the Tokyo Olympics. Here's why the substance is on the anti-doping list.

US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson has the second-fastest 100m timing this year, which would make her a favourite for the gold at the Tokyo Olympics. But she will not be going up against Jamaican great Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who owns the fastest 100m time this year and the second-fastest ever. Reason: Richardson has been slapped with a month-long ban for using marijuana. The effect marijuana has on sports performance is hotly debated, but authorities insist that it belongs in the list of banned substances. Here’s what you need to know.

When Does An Athlete Get Banned For Using A Prohibited Substance?

The decision on which substances athletes should stay off is taken by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), which is an independent foundation established in 1999 to promote, coordinate and monitor the fight against drugs in sports.

Wada designates three kinds of substances for monitoring: those which prohibited at all times, in or out of competition, the ones that are prohibited only during competition, and those that are banned only in specific sports.

Marijuana belongs to the second bucket, that is, it is not banned outside of competitions but athletes may not ingest it while participating in a competition.

The sample that returned a positive result was given by Richardson during the US Olympic Track and Field Trials, where she zoomed home with a time of 10.72 seconds. Globally, only Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica has a faster 100m time this year at 10.63 seconds.

Because the 21-year-old Richardson’s test came from a sample given in competition, she was docked her place at the Olympics in Tokyo. The ban is of three months for those who can prove that they had ingested the prohibited substance outside of competition and that it had nothing to do with their performance. It can be further brought down to a month if the athlete in question undergoes a counselling programme, which Richardson has done.

Richardson has said that she had used marijuana in early June, before the track event, after learning of her biological mother’s death. She was in Oregon, where marijuana is legal, when she used the drug.

What Are Wada’s Rules On Marijuana?

According to Wada, to be included on its list of banned substances, a substance has to be seen as doing any two of the following: Enhance, or have the potential to enhance sport performance; represent an actual or potential health risk to the athlete; and, violate the spirit of sport.

The US Anti-Doping Agency says that Wada bans marijuana because athletes who smoke cannabis in-competition are deemed to “potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making”.

Further, it points to animal and human studies and “interviews with athletes” to conclude that cannabis can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines”. Add to that its stand that “use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world”.

Are All Forms Of Marijuana Banned?

No. In 2019, USADA says, Wada exempted cannabidiol (CBD) from the category of banned marijuana derivatives. However, all other cannabinoids, whether natural or synthetic, are prohibited in-competition. Cannabinoids are nothing but the active constituents of cannabis. While the cannabis plant produces 120 different cannabinoids, USADA says that the two most commonly known are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana, and cannabidiol (CBD), which has medicinal purposes.

Sports experts say that while CBD is permitted at all times, there are risks with its use that athletes need to be aware of.

In terms of testing for the other cannabinoids, USADA says that THC is the only one for which there is a urinary threshold, which is set at 150 nanogram/mL. This means that athletes can have some THC in their system in-competition as long as the concentration in the urine is below 150 ng/mL. If the level of THC goes higher, then the athlete is handed a positive test.

That brings us to the question of how long marijuana stays in the body. USADA says that depends on several factors, including the particular cannabinoid, the dosage used, frequency of use, the user’s weight, etc. “For chronic users, they can take weeks or months to clear completely from the body,” it adds.

For all other cannabinoids, except cannabidiol, there are no threshold limits and they are banned in-competition in any amount.

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first published:July 04, 2021, 15:24 IST
last updated:July 04, 2021, 15:31 IST