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Pointlessness of cannabis testing in sport

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Star sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson is the fastest woman in the United States. With youthful effervescence and trademark Technicolor hair, she dominated the Olympic trials last month, earning first place in the 100 metres and securing a spot in both the 100 and 4x100 races at the Olympics. She had designs on being the first American woman to win 100 gold since Gail Devers in 1996. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen any more because Richardson was suspended by the US Anti-Doping Agency last Friday after testing positive for cannabis.

To be clear, Richardson knew the rules, and she made a choice to consume a banned substance, a choice she has taken admirable ownership of since the decision. But Richardson did nothing immoral. She didn't cheat; she deserved to win, and she did. According to the USADA's rules, she didn't even use a performance-enhancing substance. She also did nothing irresponsible: she managed herself through a time of extreme stress and sudden anxiety using a product that was legal for her to purchase and consume in the state where she used it. Indeed, she managed herself so effectively that she won her event and established herself as America's next track star.

So if Richardson did nothing immoral or irresponsible, why is she being punished? If cannabis is neither performance-enhancing nor illegal, why is the USADA even testing for it? As ever, the answer comes down to money and incentives. The USADA needs federal money to survive, and the Federal Government needs the organisations it funds or transacts with to treat cannabis as the dangerous, medically useless Schedule I narcotic that American laws insist it to be. Social equity is great for stump speeches, but social sanction remains the law of the land. The Centre cannot hold.

Just last month, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas described the Government's cannabis policy as, “a half-in, half-out regime that simultaneously tolerates and forbids local use”. And so it is. Cannabis is legal in Oregon, where Richardson consumed it, and has been since 2014. The Federal Government is clearly aware of this fact, and yet in all the intervening years, neither Oregon's governor nor any governor representing one of the 18 states where recreational cannabis is legal has been arrested or subject to censure.

Billions of dollars in tax revenue have flowed into federal coffers — so much that the Internal Revenue Service built a website to explain the Government's official policy on collecting taxes on sales that are banned by federal law. That’s the “tolerates” part of Thomas’s critique. And if you're wondering how a non-performance-enhancing substance ended up on the banned list of an independent sports organisation — one based in Colorado, of all places, where recreational use has been legal for nearly a decade — ask yourself this question: who funds the USADA?

The answer is the Federal Government, and as any member of Congress will tell you, whoever controls the purse controls the policy.

Last year, after my company ran a successful Pride promotion to raise money for charities supporting queer at-risk youths, we were dismayed to discover that it would be harder to donate the money than it was to raise it. (We make cannabis edibles, and many Coloradans enthusiastically support both our products and the cause.) Non-profit after non-profit refused our (sizeable) donation, not because they disapproved of cannabis, but because they feared jeopardising their 501(c)(3) status. They wanted to take the money, and we wanted to give it to them, but federal policy said no, so they had to as well.

I couldn't blame them for that decision, just like I couldn't blame my publicly funded alma mater, the University of Michigan, for refusing to post our job openings on its career site. To her enduring credit, Richardson doesn't seem to blame the USADA for its decision, either. I’m sure few in that organisation are cheering the prospect of an American woman losing out on her chance at gold for consuming a substance that many of them likely use themselves.

Unfortunately, things are going to continue this way for the foreseeable future.

Justin Singer is the chief executive and co-founder of Ripple, a Colorado-based cannabis company

Last Friday, Democratic representatives Jamie Raskin, from Maryland, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from New York, wrote to the USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency to scold them for banning cannabis despite Wada's medical director's acknowledgement that it was not a performance-enhancing drug. They went on to note that “states across the country and governments around the world are increasingly legalising marijuana, recognising that it makes little sense to treat cannabis the same as other more destructive and addictive substances, such as opioids”, and that all four major professional sports leagues have recently removed penalties for positive cannabis tests or stopped testing for the drug altogether.

All of this is true, and none of it matters, because the problem is not the USADA or Wada. Like the tax-exempt non-profit and universities who had to decline to work with my company, they are just doing what they have to do to keep the lights on. The problem is a federal cannabis policy that seems, in Thomas’s words, “more episodic than coherent”. If Raskin and Ocasio-Cortez want to take someone to task, they should start with their colleagues, and they can end with President Joe Biden.

Sha'Carri Richardson was removed from the US Olympic team after testing positive for cannabis. Her 30-day ban would make her eligible for the 4x100 relay if selected, but US officials resisted (Photograph by Ashley Landis/AP)

It is hard to comprehend the federal interest in continuing cannabis prohibition. More than 321,000 Americans work in the cannabis industry, and more than 90 per cent of Americans think the drug should be legal. Amid an historic hiring crunch, Amazon announced last month that it will stop testing job applicants for cannabis, although predictably testing will continue for positions regulated by the Transportation Department. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

At about the same time, the NFL announced a $1 million commitment towards research to explore cannabis’ potential as an alternative to opioids. Yet no matter how much public opinion and private business move to embrace legal weed, the Biden White House cannot seem to get on board. In March, the administration sidelined “dozens” of staffers based on past cannabis use, a story that reminded me of the sad day in college when I learnt that the FBI wasn’t interested in my candidacy; apparently 15 tokes was too much for one lifetime.

Our disastrously incoherent cannabis regime exists for many reasons, some cravenly political, others nakedly racist. None is scientific. People in the Biden Administration and other elected officials surely believe cannabis users are good people — just not good enough to represent the United States in the Olympics, donate to charities for at-risk youth, serve in the Federal Government or receive federal student aid.

And none of that will change until federal law finally reflects what experience has taught us: cannabis is not an inherently dangerous or addictive drug, and society functions just fine when its use is responsibly regulated. Until that truth is expressed in federal law, policy and enforcement, we will continue to separate too many of our best from hard-won opportunities for no better reason than “that’s the way it's always been”.

There have been many Sha’Carri Richardsons. Unless something changes, there will be many more.

Justin Singer is the chief executive and co-founder of Ripple, a Colorado-based cannabis company

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Published July 08, 2021 at 7:58 am (Updated July 08, 2021 at 7:19 am)

Pointlessness of cannabis testing in sport

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