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Richardson stretches both arms and lifts her hands after crossing the finish line
Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates during the U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials on June 18. Shortly after the trials, Richardson was suspended for a month for testing positive for marijuana – a ban that will keep her from competing at the Tokyo Olympics. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Banned from the Tokyo Olympics for pot? Let the athletes decide what drugs should be allowed

The recent suspension of American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who was supposed to be heading to the Tokyo Olympic Games, for testing positive for marijuana has once again raised questions about what drugs should be banned from sports.

Richardson’s suspension is seen by many as an absurd case — namely, the idea of marijuana enhancing the performance in the 100-metre sprint. But as President Joe Biden noted: “The rules are the rules.” And Richardson herself has admitted being responsible for her actions.

But why is a recreational drug like marijuana on the banned substances list in the first place? And should we be reviewing this list because they seem like “such ridiculous and cruel standards”?

There are some with more extreme views on doping. They take a position that could be called pharmaceutical libertarianism — just stop this silly testing game, which costs a great deal of money that could be wisely spent elsewhere in the world of sport.

Some PEDs are minor

Certainly, many of the hundreds of banned substances are really minor when it comes to performance enhancement. But there are also some, like the potential use of gene doping, that make taking steroids look like eating Smarties.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) came into being in 1999, shortly after the famous 1998 Tour de France Festina scandal when civil authorities stepped in for the first time to lay charges for doping.

At the time the first banned list was created, I was director for ethics and education at WADA and I attended some of those early meetings of the agency. There was no question the United States was not going to sign on the World Anti-Doping Code (WADC) unless marijuana was on the banned list. At that time, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, wanted the code to deal with recreational drugs too, which were part of his office’s mandate.

Caffeine was also on the banned list at the time because of pressure from South American representatives, who didn’t have the money to run an educational campaign to combat an abuse problem in the region. They wanted WADA to deal with the issue instead. Caffeine was eventually taken off the list, but not before some athletes lost their medals for its use.

A sectioned-off room with white walls, a sliding door, and a urinal.
The processing room of the Doping Control Station at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Village. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

There have been political interests involved, and also potential conflicts of interest, because the more things there are to test for, the more money the accredited labs can make from those tests (which can cost more than $1,000 per test).

The criteria for banned substances

The written criteria for the banned list in the WADC, of which two must be met for a substance to be banned, are: harm, performance enhancement, or violation of the spirit of sport.

Critics argue that the doping control process has become too expensive, unmanageable and the criteria too vague and ambiguous.

But, of course, when the Russians were caught cheating at the Olympic Games, many were outraged, and rightly so. WADA had to go from relying primarily on analytic lab expertise to a kind of covert espionage intelligence gathering to catch this level of national systemic doping. This wasn’t a rogue athlete like Lance Armstrong. This was state-supported cheating.

So what’s the way forward? I think the answer lies, as always, with the athletes themselves.

In intense international competitions like the Olympics, with all kinds of necessary risks, athletes already pay a very high price to compete, and for the additonal high risks of certain kinds of doping (especially gene doping, which can be far more performance enhancing and deadly than anything else on the banned list) athlete collectives have supported the bans. At the dozens of WADA meetings I attended, athletes wanted it banned.

Pharmaceutical libertarianism is not what athletes want, for very good reasons. But that does not mean that we do not need to review, and significantly reduce, the banned list.

An athlete-driven list is needed. It’s the athletes who take the risks and pay the price. They should decide what is on it.

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