Olympic frontrunner, Sha’ Carri Richardson, was banned from competing in the Olympics at the start of the month after testing positive for marijuana use. News of her ban sent controversy through the athletic community and beyond, sparking discussion on the role of marijuana in athletics. 

“It’s definitely unfortunate, it’s not something you like to see, but I think it’s just,” said Megan Raab, a sophomore sprinter on Messiah’s track and field team. 

Madison Myers, a senior sprinter on Messiah’s track and field team, felt more strongly about Richardson’s ban. 

“I think it’s really sad and I was kind of taken aback by it,” said Myers. “I get it, rules are rules, but sometimes the rules need to be adjusted.” 

Using to Cope

Richardson used marijuana after learning of her mother’s death for the first time during Olympic trials. She was reportedly using marijuana to cope with the “emotional panic” she was going through.

Richardson told TODAY, “People don’t understand what it’s like to have to go in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain. Who am I to tell you how to cope when you’re dealing with the pain or you’re dealing with a struggle that you haven’t experienced before or that you thought you never would have to deal with?”

To Myers, this ban is of larger significance than just marijuana.

“I think maybe we should look at her mental health and what she was going through at that moment,” said Myers. 

When asked about the emphasis on mental health in athletic communities, Raab agreed there were shortcomings. 

“Being an athlete is stressful,” Raab said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like at a level like that. I’m sure there is a lack of proper mental health help for not only competing but also for going through life’s problems.” 

Despite the obvious need for addressing athlete’s mental health concerns, using marijuana to cope is not something everyone agrees with. 

“Obviously mental health is hugely important,” Raab said, “I don’t know if smoking weed is a way to combat that. You have things like therapists which would probably be more beneficial. Weed is a way of coping without actually fixing your problems.” 

Sha’Carri Richardson is not the only American to use marijuana to cope. According to a 2017 poll, 22 percent of American adults use marijuana. Of those, 33 percent of regular users describe the greatest benefit to be marijuana’s potential to reduce stress and anxiety. 

Raab hopes that because of Richardson’s ban, people will consider the impact that stress has on athletes, and hopefully find better ways to cope.

“I hope it’ll lead to a discussion on better mental health for athletes, and hopefully providing better services for them,” said Raab. 

Why is Weed Banned?

Richardson’s ban has also sparked discussion on whether the prohibition of marijuana is necessary.

The World Anti-Doping Agency, which influences the anti-doping laws of most sporting leagues, has three criteria for adding a substance to its prohibited list. Of these three, two need to be met for the substance to be banned:

  1. The substance poses a health risk to the athletes
  2. It has the potential to enhance performance
  3. It violates the spirit of the sport 

According to a paper published in 2011 by the World Anti-Doping Agency, marijuana violates all three of these criteria:

  1. “Athletes who smoke cannabis or Spice in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk-taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.”
  2. “Based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance-enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.”
  3. “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.”

However, Richardson’s ban has ushered in a conversation as to the validity of these statements, specifically the latter two.

“Performance Enhancing”

New research suggests that marijuana is not performance-enhancing, as previously claimed.

According to the New York Times, two independent papers analyzed the existing research supporting the stance that marijuana enhanced performance. They found that the 2011 analysis used by the World Anti-Doping Agency to support their position does not support the claim that marijuana is performance-enhancing. 

One study found the opposite claim, stating that marijuana “does not act as a sport performance-enhancing agent as raised by popular beliefs.”

With marijuana’s status as a performance-enhancing drug in question, there is also the third criteria to consider: whether or not smoking marijuana violates the spirit of the sport. 

“The Spirit of the Sport”

The World Anti-Doping Agency cites that an athlete’s use of marijuana is not “consistent with the athlete as a role model.” This begs the question: should athletes be responsible for being role models to young people across the world? 

Myers feels that there is an unfair expectation put on athletes to be role models for others.

“I feel like we have this false idea in our heads that a good athlete wakes up every day, has a green smoothie, does yoga, and does all this stuff,” Myers said. “In my opinion, a good role model is someone who can own up to their mistakes… she was completely honest from the beginning about what she did.”

Myers does not disagree that athletes prominently smoking weed could impact their standing in young athletes’ eyes but prefers to applaud her response to her suspension.

“It could impact younger kids,” she said, “but I think that the way she handled it made her a better role model.”

In the meantime, Richardson will remain banned from competing. 

“I want to take responsibility for my actions,” she told TODAY. “I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do … and I still made that decision.”

Richardson’s ban was accepted by the United States Anti-Doping Agency at the start of the month. This disqualifies her qualifying results and puts a one-month sanction on her competing, the lowest ban able to be given. 

However, while it is a short time period, this ban prevents Richardson from competing in this year’s Olympic games.