Sprint star Sha’Carri Richardson will miss the 100m under anti-doping rules. But the evidence to show weed enhances performance is wafer-thin.
One of the fastest women in history will miss out on running the 100m at this month’s Olympics in Tokyo after testing positive for cannabis.
American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, 21, who ran the sixth fastest women’s 100m of all time at 10.72 seconds in April, was a clear Gold medal contender at the Games.
She has accepted a 30-day suspension that does not end until the 27th of July, meaning she has a chance to compete in the women’s relays.
The positive test at trials in Oregon, where weed is legal, first reported on Thursday by Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner, falls foul of World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules banning cannabis because it “poses a health risk to athletes, has the potential to enhance performance and it violates the spirit of sport”.
Richardson, who is not an open cannabis user, told NBC’s Today show on Friday morning: “I want to take responsibility for my actions. I’m not looking for an excuse. Right now I’m just putting all of my energy into dealing with what I need to deal with to heal myself.”
On Thursday she had tweeted the words “I am human.”
Cannabis has nowhere near the impact on athletes that other banned performance enhancing drugs such steroids have. But WADA cites a 2011 paper published by the National Institute of Health as evidence that cannabis poses a health risk to athletes and enhances performance.
It speculates that cannabis can be a health risk if an athlete is still intoxicated from weed because it may impair their decision making and skills. It also says that although cannabis can decrease coordination, the drug can enhance performance by decreasing anxiety, increase appetite during training and could potentially improve breathing.
However the 2011 paper appears to be an outlier. A study published in 2017 concluded that “THC does not enhance aerobic exercise or strength”. THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. A 2018 study found there was “no evidence for cannabis use as a performance-enhancing drug.” And a systematic review of the evidence published last year found cannabis “does not act as a sport performance enhancing agent”.
Richardson’s positive test comes in the wake of a move across professional sports in the US to punish cannabis use less harshly.
WADA now permits the use of cannabidiol products (CBD) by athletes, in line with legalisation moves in several US states. Last year both the National Football League (NFA) and National Hockey League (NHL) agreed that players testing positive would not be suspended. In Major League Baseball, players can use weed without sanction and last year the National Basketball Association (NBA) suspended cannabis testing.
FIFA, the governing body of international football, still tests for cannabis, as does England’s Premier League, but admits in its guidance that cannabis “is hardly used with intent to enhance performance” and that the drug “is not a doping problem, but a social problem”.
“There is no empirical data that cannabis or THC enhance exercise performance and recent reviews of the scientific literature would refute any effect of cannabis or THC on performance indices like maximal oxygen consumption or physical work capacity,” said Saoirse O’Sullivan, a professor of pharmacology and cannabis industry consultant.
“In this modern era where the medical and recreational use of cannabis has growing legality globally, regulators should reconsider whether cannabis should be a doping offence.”