Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension points to larger cannabis problem in sports. Just ask NJ athletes.

Green, black and gold patterns dominated the Olympics’ winner’s circle following the always-riveting women’s 100-meter dash this past Saturday in Tokyo.

It was a pridefully commanding sweep of the podium for Jamaica as all three medalists in the event were serenaded with the country’s national anthem while gracing the main stage in celebration.

And quite frankly, the nation’s appearance in the top three didn’t come as much of a surprise to those in the track world. Jamaica is consistently excellent when it comes to speed events, boasting the men’s 100-meter and 200-meter world record holder in Usain Bolt, and current women’s Olympic champion in both events: Elaine Thompson-Herah. 

The historic triple-entendre (Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Shericka Jackson, Thompson-Herah) of victors set off a firestorm of media coverage as the country’s female sprinters embark on another quest to further cement their track legacies in the upcoming team 4×100.

But while those who did star in Tokyo’s dazzling spectacle were lighting the track—media airwaves ablaze with their fiery dash—one notable absence from the competition has garnered comparable global attention.

The United States, while generally respectable as far as sprinting is concerned, was void of any substantial challengers to Jamaica’s three-headed monster, and that was in large part due to the unavailability of an intriguing budding superstar.

Her name: Sha’Carri Richardson. Her status for the 2020 Olympic Games: out due to suspension. The reason: a green substance—different from the one that adorns Jamaica’s flag, and far different from the cash she would’ve raked in had she emerged from the field victorious. 

But despite being disallowed from running in Tokyo, Richardson remains a champion in her own field of vision.

She showered the Jamaican trifecta with congratulations following their rampant run, and has continuously remained poised in the face of controversy, incessantly reiterating her unwillingness to give up, and hopeful outlook on her career’s next steps.

She’s just scratching the surface of her potential at 21 years of age, which undoubtedly fuels her optimistic disposition. But a career in athletics poses more uncertainties than almost any other trade. 

So much can happen in a matter of four years: injury, coaching changes, rule alterations, and so many potential circumstances that are far beyond a person’s control. 

Now, all of these happenings certainly lie in the realms of pure possibility, and fans hope they’re largely avoided, but for those who were hoping to see Richardson compete in late July, they can only wait—and wonder about the magic that could’ve been. 

Richardson’s rocketlike ascension up the track and field ranks began during her high school days in Texas. She torpedoed her way to several AAU, National and International Juniors titles, before riding the wave of her own fast-tracked spurt to nearby Louisiana State University.

She spent just one year there (which came with its own haul of blazing record-breakers), before forgoing college eligibility and turning pro after the 2019 season.

Her sovereignty sustained from there.

Richardson was just as effective as a professional, placing first in several heats before securing an Olympic spot in the U.S. trials—and becoming the country’s fastest woman with a scorching time of 10.86 seconds. She screamed, “I’m a f***** Olympian,” after turning on the afterburners and crossing the finish line; orange locks billowing in the wind as the white Nikes on her feet pranced with celerity, carrying her towards paradise. And as America would soon come to find out, she did she did it just days after receiving the painstaking news that her biological mother had passed away.

But a few days later, Richardson’s world would come crashing down like an avalanche when it was revealed that she had tested positive for THC metabolites, which indicated recent cannabis use.

The repercussion: a 30-day suspension beginning June 28 that would’ve ruled her out for contention in the Olympics’ 100-meter race, but allowed her to compete in the women’s 4×100 relay. Those hopes too though, dissipated into thin air after the USA Track Federation announced that she would not be included on the roster. The organization released this statement with regards to the controversy:

“All USATF athletes are equally aware of and must adhere to the current anti-doping code, and our credibility as the National Governing Body would be lost if rules were only enforced under certain circumstances. So while our heartfelt understanding lies with Sha’Carri, we must also maintain fairness for all of the athletes who attempted to realize their dreams by securing a place on the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team.”

It was undoubtedly a harrowing blow to Richardson and her camp, who will now be forced to go on with haunting ruminations of “what if.” 

Richardson, though, is not the first competitor to have her dreams cut short by the long arm of the law when it comes to marijuana regulations. And she likely won’t be the last.

In fact, the United States has a rocky history with the leafy drug, and New Jersey certainly comprises a role in it.

As of 2021, there have been at least 19 cases of Olympiad suspensions involving cannabis, and while these instances carry the most ramifications (they make up the upper crust of athletic competition), repercussions for marijuana use trickle all the way down to the high school level. 

Governor Phil Murphy both legalized and decriminalized cannabis statewide in February, but despite the loosened restrictions, several big-name college programs within the state still have harsh restrictions regarding it.

For example, Seton Hall University’s student athlete’s handbook specifies marijuana in its list of banned substances in a category of unwarranted stimulants classified as “street drugs.”

Meanwhile, Rutgers’ athletic department—infamous for NCAA sanctions levied against them after the program failed to take action against 30 football players who failed initial drug tests—loosened its own penalties regarding the drug; separating marijuana from other substances like cocaine and heroin. Per its new policy, a failed marijuana test will no longer result in suspension, while repeated infractions elicit more severe punishments. 

It was a welcome sight for various competitors who see weed as nothing more than a benefit to their lives and well-being. 

In fact, a study performed with the Rutgers Health and Human Development Project concluded that 37% of male athletes, and 25% of female athletes in a pool of 392 total used the drug prevalently in the past year. 

Another inquiry conducted by the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Substance Abuse Survey netted a 24.7% rate of students who self-reported themselves as users anonymously (the questionnaire pooled roughly 60,000 student athletes through all three NCAA divisions). 

That rate only climbs with the competition.

Former NFL tight end Martellus Bennett hypothesized that about 89% of NFL players use some form of marijuana to ease their stresses—both mental and physical—that are inherently attached to the pro football grind. Bennett closed his appearance on a Simms and Lefkoe podcast by stating that he believed the league’s rules surrounding the substance were unfair.

Current New Jersey native Tiki Barber agrees. In a recent op-ed with NJ Spotlight, Barber claimed that he saw numerous teammates use the drug, and described it as an aid in coping with the rigid lifestyle of the NFL. While he didn’t advocate for its recreational use, he did call for the NFL to invest more dividends into research surrounding its benefits.

Benefits that several athletes (many of whom we’ll never even know about) would certainly attest to personally. 

As of now though, more athletes are feeling the negative consequences of rules surrounding the drug, than reaping any positives.

New Jersey judoka Nick Delpopolo is one of those unfortunate victims. The former Bergen Catholic standout was barred from the 2012 London games after unknowingly ingesting a pot brownie. He’s dealt with both his own disappointment, plus criticism from contemporaries ever since. While he didn’t venture to Tokyo this year, he’s looking to resurface onto the judo scene for the 2024 event. 

No person should have to deal with the pain that comes with being stripped of an opportunity they’ve worked their entire life for—and earned. But that sting is magnified tenfold when it’s taken away due to something that doesn’t enhance their efforts in their sport of play. 

Nick Delpopolo knows that pain. Sha’Carri Richardson does too. And so many more hard-working people can attest to it as well.

Now, in no way am I advocating for cannabis use in athletics. I’m not qualified to make that argument. But I am advocating against happenstances like those we saw in Richardson’s case.

I see no correlation between cannabis and running fast, or any other Olympic-level athletic feat for that matter. And to lose eligibility for using something that operates on the same legal level as alcohol is dumbfounding. 

Richardson’s race is not mine to run. And neither is the figurative race the athletic rule-makers are running to make sure they’re consistently turning out their best product.

For the sake of the sporting good, I just hope chances like hers aren’t ruined based on factors that have nothing to do with the field of play.