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US Athlete’s Olympics Suspension Highlights Influence of War on Drugs

End Federal Prohibition of Marijuana; Decriminalize Possession of Drugs for Personal Use

Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates after winning the first heat of the semi-finals in women's 100-meter run at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Eugene, Oregon © 2021 Ashley Landis/AP Images

The suspension last week of sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson from competing on the United States Olympic team is yet another example of how the war on drugs is adversely impacting individuals and communities around the country.

After testing positive for Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component of cannabis, Richardson accepted a “doping sanction” of a one-month suspension that ultimately bars her competition in the 100-meter race at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics. The federal government, US Anti-Doping Agency, and the World Anti-Doping Agency, prohibit cannabinoids with the exception of cannabidiol (CBD), and consider them a substance of abuse.

Richardson, 21, said she used marijuana to cope with the death of her biological mother while in Oregon, which in 2014 legalized marijuana and recently became the first US state to decriminalize simple possession of all drugs. As of June 2021, 36 states allow for medicinal use of cannabis and 18 have enacted legislation to regulate cannabis for adult use.

Nonetheless, drug possession for personal use remains by far the most arrested offense in the US, with numbers showing stark racial disparities. About half of those arrests are for marijuana possession. Despite similar usage rates, in 2018, Black people were 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.

Though Richardson was not criminally charged, her story shows how the government’s punitive approach to drugs has seeped far beyond the criminal legal system. The prohibition of marijuana use in Olympic sports is reported to have occurred in part as a result of pressure by then-US “drug czar” Barry McCaffrey in the late 1990s.  

Richardson’s suspension is a reminder of the human toll of the criminalization of drug use and possession across the US. Drug offenses can and often do lead to harsh immigration consequences, including deportation, and exclusion from public housing and access to safety net benefits.

The US government should end the federal prohibition of marijuana through legislation like the MORE Act and focus on health-centered approaches to drug use via the Drug Policy Reform Act, which would end federal criminalization of simple drug possession and begin to repair the drug war’s devastating harms. It’s time the US upheld the rights and dignity of all people, including those who use drugs. 

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