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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Explained: How Joe Biden prompted WADA’s rethink on cannabis ban

The anti-doping watchdog said the review is being undertaken ‘following receipt of request from a number of stakeholders’, without going into further specifics.

Written by Mihir Vasavda , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: September 16, 2021 8:32:21 am
WADA cannabis ban, Biden cannabis ban, Sha’Carri Richardson, Sha’Carri Richardson marijuana test, Richardson dope test, Richardson marijuana, Richardson Tokyo Olympics, Indian ExpressSha'Carri RIchardson tested positive for cannabis after she won the 100m at the US trials It is now being suggested that the WADA’s marijuana prohibition – which came under fire after Richardson tested positive for it – could soon be relaxed.

The writing, perhaps, was on the wall the moment United States President Joe Biden said: “Rules are the rules… Whether they should remain that way, whether that should remain the rule, is a different issue.”

Months after Biden’s statement, the ‘rule’ is being reviewed. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), on Wednesday, said they will initiate a scientific review of the cannabis ban for athletes. The anti-doping watchdog said the review is being undertaken ‘following receipt of request from a number of stakeholders’, without going into further specifics.

It is now being suggested that the agency’s marijuana prohibition – which came under fire after American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for it – could soon be relaxed.

Why is marijuana being re-examined as a banned substance?

Even though WADA did not mention Richardson’s case specifically in its statement, it is believed that Wednesday’s decision is the outcome of the backlash it faced back then.

In July, Richardson – who clocked the sixth-fastest 100m time of all time – tested positive for cannabis during the US selection trials for the Tokyo Olympics. As a consequence, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) banned her for a month, and she was not included in the American team. Her disqualification reignited the debate over the cannabis ban in Olympic sports, given that it is legal in many American states.

Following Biden’s comments, which came soon after it became clear that Richardson would miss the Tokyo Olympics, the Financial Times reported that the White House would ‘push’ WADA for a rethink on cannabis use in sport. The USADA, too, said back then that it was ‘time to revisit the rules.’

The American view assumes significance because the country contributes more money to WADA than any other country and website reported that this year, they are due to pay $2.9 million.

Isn’t marijuana legal in several countries?

In 2013, Uruguay became the first country to make buying and selling of marijuana for recreational use legal. Canada followed in 2018 and several countries have decriminalised it to a certain degree, including Australia, the Netherlands, Spain and South Africa. In the USA, marijuana use is legal in a lot of states, including Oregon where Richardson tested positive. India, however, has not legalised it.

Then why is it banned by WADA?

WADA, according to its code, prohibits substances that meet two of three criteria: It enhances, or could potentially enhance an athlete’s performance; poses a health risk to athletes; and/or violates ‘the spirit of sport.’

It does not specifically say which criteria are violated because of the consumption of marijuana. However, in 2011, a paper co-authored by WADA’s executive director (sciences and international partnerships) Olivier Rabin noted that athletes who smoke cannabis ‘potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function.’ The paper also said that cannabis might relieve the stress of competition, giving the athlete some sort of an advantage.

Does it actually aid performance?

This has for long been a subject of debate. In fact, some experts have offered a contradictory view to that given in the paper published in 2011, saying that performance is in fact adversely affected after smoking cannabis, thus arguing that it isn’t a performance-enhancing drug. Alain Comtois, the director of the department of sports science at the University of Quebec in Montreal, told the BBC earlier this year: “You have to take the big picture. Yes, anxiety levels go down, but in terms of actual physiological data, it shows that performance is reduced.”

Did athletes get suspended for its use before Richardson’s case?

Yes. A couple of decades ago, even before marijuana appeared on WADA’s list, the International Olympic Committee tried to strip Canada’s Ross Rebagliati off a gold medal he won at the Nagano Winter Olympics after he tested positive for the drug. It was later returned to him but soon after, the drug was banned from Olympic sports. Since then, a lot of athletes – including swimming legend Michael Phelps – have been handed suspensions for smoking weed.

What happens next?

WADA reviews its list of prohibited substances every year. The review will suggest whether a drug should remain on the list after 2022. That means, smoking marijuana could lead to suspension at least until the end of next year. Based on the suggestion made by its review panel, a decision will be taken on whether it should be declassified as a performance-enhancing drug.

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