Can the Latest Olympics Controversy Change Cannabis Policy?

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Was Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympics suspension after testing positive for cannabis justified? As a cannabinoid specialist, I have a unique perspective on the science and the politics of cannabis. The irony to me is that this situation is entirely a political problem.

I’m of two minds. Arguably the rules, rightly or wrongly, are the rules — and any elite athlete knows them. After all her hard work and training, why Richardson thought she could or should use cannabis for any purpose remains unclear. So, as such, she made her own bed.

However, rules that aren’t based in fact are arbitrary and should be called out and changed. In the case of cannabis, these rules are based on political goals, not science, and are long overdue for correction.

We have known for decades that cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug. It can be used effectively for mental health, workout, or post-workout relief, and it helps an array of other medical purposes. However, it does not fundamentally make you stronger, faster, more agile, or any other attribute that would lead to a competitive advantage in sporting events. Banning athletes from using cannabis is equivalent to banning them from using ibuprofen or ice.

Why then, is cannabis so controversial?

The history of prohibition of cannabis has never been based in science. Like any medicine, cannabis can be used properly or not, resulting in benefit or harm. The prohibition of cannabis was never based on this. It centered around the U.S. attacking people of color to prevent economic advancement in the 1930s and to block their political advancement in the 1970s. It’s time for this to change.

Looking at the role of the U.S. on the world stage, we can see that the U.S. invented cannabis prohibition and then set out to cajole the world to follow suit. Through international treaties on drug trafficking and tying foreign aid to prohibitionist policies, the U.S. led much of the world down this cannabis prohibition rabbit hole. The United Nations, World Health Organizations, and International Olympic Committee are all adhering to policies set up to advance racist political agendas.

The world is awakening to the insanity of these policies and starting to reject them. Countries as diverse as Nigeria, Canada, Colombia, Israel, and Australia are adopting evidence-driven policies. The U.S., on the other hand, continues to dilly-dally with what can only be called half-baked policies at the state level — and absolute grandstanding at the federal level.

So, what needs to change?

Since the U.S. still wields power internationally — and created this mess — it should step up and fix it. The Biden administration is being unreasonably quiet in this arena. It is time for our new president to lead. He has the ability to go far beyond tolerating states’ programs. He can instruct the DEA to reschedule cannabis or even to deschedule it and leave regulation in the hands of the science-based FDA. It makes no sense to leave cannabis use regulation in the hands of any police agency.

The President should also demand that Congress develop comprehensive cannabis reform that not only prevents targeting of people of color but regulates cannabis as medicine for the benefit of those who are truly ill. Presently, the discussion of cannabis reform in Washington, as little as there is, does not even acknowledge that cannabis is a medicine and should be regulated as such. If approached and regulated the right way, legalizing cannabis for medical use at the federal level can make a big difference in patient care.

It is unfortunate that Richardson has become the victim of decades of racist policy. It’s time for these policies to be changed. Perhaps she is Rosa Parks of cannabis — the one who finally catalyzes these changes. However, it is the U.S., its representatives, and the President who bear the ultimate responsibility for making these changes and ensuring that all Americans — and all humans — are treated fairly and provided the proper medical care. Mr. President, it’s time to act!

Jordan Tishler, MD, is a cannabis specialist and President of the Association of Cannabinoid Specialists, through which he has been instrumental in the implementation and improvement of medical cannabis regulation in many states.

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