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Pot and Politics: Should Cannabis be Banned in the Olympics

Written by Brittany Findlay

Sha'Carri Richardson was 21, one of the top 10 fastest female runners in history, and closing in on her first Olympic gold medal. On the brink of reaching her goals, her biological mother died suddenly, and Sha’Carri was grieving but still preparing to compete. Then she tested positive for cannabis, and watched her chance at the 2021 Tokyo Games crumble to bits. She hadn’t hurt anyone, she just smoked some pot to cope with her mother’s death… was it really over for her?

Olympians destroy their bodies for pride of country and the entertainment of the public worldwide. They’re like modern gladiators, battling it out against other countries for the top spot, competition after competition, year after painful year. They make untold sacrifices to get to the top, earning adoration and fame (and sometimes, money) for their hard work. But I have at least ONE thing NONE of those Olympians have - the right to consume cannabis in any state where it is legal.

Because, believe it or not, despite the U.S. having 37 states with some kind of medical cannabis program, and 19 states that have just straight up legalized adult use of cannabis altogether, Olympic athletes are still banned from using pot. Period.

What gives? Who lumped pot in with steroids and uppers? Who decided that our gladiators, living in the land of the free and the home of the brave, can’t smoke a celebratory blunt on vacation if they feel like it? Who is in charge of these decisions and why are they not using their power for good?

The short answer is the World Anti-Doping Agency (or WADA) gets to make the rules and set the standard. WADA got that power when they formed in 1999. Why they are taking a stance against cannabis when it really hasn’t been much of an issue is anyone’s guess, but it’s probably because it’s been villainized for a long time - so why would that be any different in the wide world of sports?

The long answer is a bit more nuanced I guess. The Olympics first began testing their international athletic competitors starting in 1968. Back in 1960 the Olympics suffered the first ever death of a competitor due to drugs. A Danish cyclist named Knud Jensen passed out during his race and consequently fractured his skull. During the autopsy, Jensen’s death was quickly linked to amphetamine use. Everyone clutched their pearls, but ancient Greeks and Romans had always used drugs during the Olympics…so…

Then, just seven years later in July of 1967, the death of another cyclist, a Brit named Tommy Simpson, shook the sports community again. Simpson had been sick during his race and to keep up with the competition was self medicating by consuming large amounts of brandy and methamphetamines. His plan worked - until it didn’t anymore, and his body shut down.

It was starting to look like amphetamines were becoming a real problem for the Olympics. Shortly after Simpson’s death, the International Olympic Committee (or IOC) formed their own Medical Commission and the real fight against doping in sports began. Just in time too, because they disqualified their first athlete during that very first year of testing. Surprisingly, it was not because of amphetamines, but because of alcohol found in the athlete’s system when he was tested directly following the event. The Swedish born Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall was forced to return his medal - and in fact - his entire team returned their medals.

There were also 14 athletes that tested positive for tranquilizers that year, but those weren’t banned, so nobody really cared.

In 1975 the IOC added anabolic steroids to their list of banned substances. In 1988 a Canadian named Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids and had to relinquish his gold medal. He swore he hadn’t taken anything, and that his drink must have been spiked, but he had another positive test 5 years later and he was banned from the Olympics for life.

The 1990’s saw quite a few doping scandals in sports, one of note that stands out for our purposes. In 1998 Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati became the first, and the ONLY, Olympian to lose a gold medal due to the use of cannabis. Rebagliati appealed the decision however, saying the small amount that was detected wasn’t even consumed by him, but by others at parties he had attended,

“There were a lot of parties. There was a wake on the lead up to the Olympics for a friend who was buried in an avalanche, and there was a lot of cannabis consumed around at this tragic event, but I hadn’t been smoking it myself at that time.”

His lawyers also found that the IOC did not have THC on the list of banned substances. Rebagliati had won in Japan, where a positive cannabis test means an automatic charge of possession, and when his test revealed a positive result, the testers took it to the police who promptly arrested Rebagliati. He hadn’t violated IOC rules at all, his medal should have never been stripped from him. Once his lawyers made this clear, his medal was reinstated and Rebagliati once again became a gold medal winner.

The next year WADA was founded.

Currently their section on Cannabinoids reads,


All prohibited substances in this class are Specified Substances.

Substance of Abuse in this section: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

All natural and synthetic cannabinoids are prohibited, e.g.

• In cannabis (hashish, marijuana) and cannabis products

• Natural and synthetic tetrahydrocannabinols (THCs)

• Synthetic cannabinoids that mimic the effects of THC


• Cannabidiol”

There is no cannabis in golfing. The PGA tests within the WADA regulations, and has it’s own 50+ page Anti-Doping manual, which categorizes cannabis as a drug of abuse, right alongside narcotics and amphetamines,


Prohibited: Natural, e.g. cannabis, hashish and marijuana, or synthetic 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC); Cannabimimetics, e.g. “Spice”, JWH-018, JWH-073, HU-210.”

And there is no cannabis in tennis either. The International Tennis Federation was okay with John McEnroe paying a $1,500 fine for shouting derogatory things to his rival, but they are not okay with a player consuming cannabis. Ask Alexandre Nicolau who was banned from playing for one full year after he tested positive for pot in 2017.

But there are more and more professional sport leagues moving away from the antiquated WADA assertion that cannabis is going to give an athlete some kind of level up on the competition. In recent years, with recreational and medical legalization taking the country by storm, the powers that be in sports are taking note…cannabis may not be as much of an evil doer as we’ve been led to believe.

Combat sports have relaxed their strict anti-cannabis positions. In 2021, the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which governs most of the boxing and mixed martial arts world, stopped banning fighters for use or possession of cannabis.

The NBA doesn’t abide by WADA, and actually stopped testing for marijuana during the COVID pandemic, when athletes had been on an extended break. In 2021 they stated:

“We have agreed…to extend the suspension of random testing for marijuana for the 2021-22 season and focus our random testing program on performance-enhancing products and drugs of abuse.”

The NHL, National Hockey League, has it’s own recommendations as well, and released an official statement that reads,

“Marijuana is on the list of substances that are subject to NHL drug testing. Results remain confidential unless a positive test is referred to the players-assistance program. Marijuana is not designated as a performance-enhancing drug, so a positive test result for marijuana does not in itself lead to a suspension.”

The rest of the Big Four - the National Football League and Major League Baseball, have also taken a step back from the status quo/reefer madness and are viewing cannabis use with a clearer, less propaganda colored lens. Most teams I researched will now more often than not offer some sort of guidance and rehabilitation services to players that test high in cannabis or alcohol.

Even the actual World Anti-Doping Agency realizes that cannabis isn’t as bad as they originally thought, because in 2013 they raised the allowable amount in an athlete’s sample by 10 times, from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 150 nanograms per milliliter.

Now, you tell us Cactus Court, should cannabis be banned from the Olympics?

Does it a) enhance performance or b) go against the spirit of competition? Is it c) causing the athlete physical harm? It has to meet two of those three qualifications, according to WADA, to be on their bad boys list.

So, what do you say…does it?


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