Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) wrote a letter Friday on behalf of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties expressing “dismay” over the suspension of sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson for drug use, saying the policy was rooted in “an ugly history of systemic racism.”
The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced earlier that day that Richardson accepted a one-month suspension for testing positive for carboxy-THC, the chemical ingredient in cannabis and marijuana.
The results of the test disqualified Richardson’s win in the 100-meter dash during the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and prevent her from competing at all for the U.S. Olympic team during the Tokyo Olympics.
AOC’s letter says the ban is an “unnecessary burden on athlete’s civil liberties” because marijuana does not enhance an athlete’s performance. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which oversees anti-doping rules, regulations, and policies for international sports, found in a 2011 report that cannabis may have performance-enhancing properties. The agency classifies cannabis as a “substance of abuse.” AOC’s letter argued that by that standard, alcohol and cigarettes should be on the list as well.
The letter further claims that the ban reflects “anti-drug laws and policies that have historically targeted Black and Brown communities while largely condoning drug use in white communities.”
The WADA code specifies that a substance can be prohibited for three reasons: it enhances performance, it poses an actual or potential health risk to an athlete, or its use violates the spirit of sport, which WADA describes as “the ethical pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each athlete’s natural talents” and the “celebration of the human spirit, body and mind.”
The 2011 research report by WADA and the National Institute of Health found that cannabis had the potential to violate all three standards, citing decreased anxiety and muscle spasms as well as increased sensory perception and appetite, the prevalence of cannabis-related hospital emergency room visits, and the responsibility athletes bear as role models.
The letter is addressed to the USADA and WADA. While Richardson’s ban was enacted by the USADA, the body is a signatory to the WADA rules, meaning it does not have the autonomy or authority to change the enforcement of international regulations, which apply to athletes in every country.
The one-month ineligibility period imposed on Richardson is the minimum sanction permitted under WADA rules, already reduced from the three-month period typically handed out for using a “substance of abuse” during competition because Richardson completed a treatment program.
AOC tweeted, “Their decision lacks any scientific basis. It’s rooted solely in the systemic racism that’s long driven anti-marijuana laws.” She tweeted again the same day that “The criminalization and banning of cannabis is an instrument of racist and colonial policy.”
Biden, however, said on Saturday, “The rules are the rules and everybody knows what the rules were going in. Whether they should remain the rules is a different issue, but the rules are the rules.”
Richardson explained in a Friday interview that her drug use was tied to her mother’s death the week before, but that she didn’t blame anyone for USADA’s verdict: “Honestly I want to take responsibility for my actions. I know what I did; I know what I’m supposed to do…. and I still made that decision. I’m not making an excuse and I’m not looking for any empathy.”
Richardson continued, “I would like to say to my fans, my family … I apologize. I represent a community that has shown me great support, great love, and I failed y’all. And so I apologize for the fact that I didn’t even know how to control my emotions during that time.”
“If you choose to do things like that in your personal time,” Richardson added, “you should be aware of the consequences…. This will never happen again.”