For Kimberly Dillon, Sha’Carri Richardson is more than a star sprinter. She represents what America is “supposed to be.”
Dillon, like many others, was enthralled by Richardson’s performance at last month’s U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Oregon: her blazing orange hair, her demeanor, her confidence, her backstory. How Richardson, 21, dominated the 100-meter race in the trials this year — all while mourning the death of her biological mother.
“She’s so fiercely independent. She’s so fiercely proud of herself,” Dillon said. “She just represents so many different people. I would argue [she’s] the face of America.”
When Dillon learned of Richardson’s suspension for testing positive for marijuana, announced Friday by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, she was heartbroken. In an NBC interview, Richardson said she used marijuana to help cope with the sudden death of her biological mother.
“So many of us are rubbing [cannabis] on ourselves for pain or taking it right now for anxiety. And she does the same thing with the same plant, and her dreams are crushed for it,” said Dillon, who is the founder of Frigg, a wellness company that uses cannabis in its products.
“The hypocrisy of it, I think, is what is really heartbreaking.”
Richardson’s suspension hit social media like a tidal wave on Friday, with many expressing shock that the use of marijuana — a substance that has become more accepted, legally and socially, throughout the world in recent years — could disqualify a top athlete from competing.
Black women who have advocated for the legal use of marijuana, in particular, say Richardson’s case is a prime example of how marijuana is still stigmatized and misunderstood. To them, her punishment represents the enduring harm of U.S. drug laws, highlighting the high price Black people have often paid when those rules are enforced.
U.S. laws have been “fundamentally set up in a racist fashion,” Dillon said. “And there’s a compounding effect of that.”
Richardson will serve a one-month suspension, which will expire two days before the Olympic track and field meet begins later this month. But her 100-meter time — the second-fastest posted by a woman this year, behind Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price — has been vacated, meaning her trial time does not count, and she will not run her signature race at the Tokyo Olympics.
However, she could still compete in the 4x100-meter relay if track officials choose.
“While we are heartbroken, the USOPC is steadfast in its commitment to clean competition and it supports the anti-doping code,” a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee spokesperson said in a statement. “A positive test for any banned substance comes with consequences and we are working with USATF to determine the appropriate next steps. We are dedicated to providing Sha’Carri the support services she needs during this difficult time.” (The organization did not respond to an additional request for comment.)
In a statement, a USA Track and Field spokesperson said Richardson’s positive test “is incredibly unfortunate and devastating for everyone involved.” It was not clear whether she’ll be asked to join the Tokyo relay team.
In the NBC interview, Richardson, who was raised by her grandmother, said she learned about her mother’s death from a reporter during an interview at the trials in Eugene, Ore.
“It sent me into a state of emotional panic,” she said. “I didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time.”
Richardson also apologized for her actions. “I know what I did. I know what I’m supposed to,” she said earlier in the interview. “... But I still made that decision.”
Dasheeda Dawson, who oversees the cannabis program for the city of Portland, said she was “incredibly shocked and sad” at the news.
Recreational cannabis has been legal for five years in Oregon, where Richardson ingested marijuana.
“She’s broken no laws” in the state, said Dawson, who is one of only a handful of Black women managing the legal regulation of cannabis in the United States.
To her, the rule the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is enforcing is an example of outdated policies.
The World Anti-Doping Agency, which released its list of prohibited substances at the beginning of the year, listed THC, a chemical compound found in marijuana, alongside cocaine, ecstasy and heroin as substances banned because they are “frequently abused in society outside of the context of sport.” The list only applies when athletes are competing. CBD, another compound found in marijuana, is exempted.
“The rules are clear, but this is heartbreaking on many levels,” said Travis Tygart, the USADA chief executive. “Her acceptance of responsibility and apology will be an important example to us all that we can successfully overcome our regrettable decisions, despite the costly consequences of this one to her.”
Dawson argues that Richardson was using cannabis as it has been prescribed to many: to help treat anxiety and depression.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘rules are rules,’ but we also understand in 2021 that we have a lot of rules that are based on systemic racism and are not correct. And cannabis prohibition is one of many,” she said.
A prominent example can be traced to President Richard M. Nixon’s administration, when he implemented his Southern Strategy, which emphasized a tough-on-crime approach.
In a 1994 interview, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, said the administration’s “war on drugs” was designed to rein in two “enemies” of the White House: “the antiwar left and Black people.”
“By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. (There is debate about Ehrlichman’s own motivations, and some historians argue that Nixon was not solely motivated by race.)
People of color have paid a high price for such laws, with Black and Latino people making up the majority to those imprisoned in federal and state prisons for drug offenses.
Now, as social acceptance of cannabis has grown in the past decade, marijuana has been legalized in some form in most of the United States. (More than 30 states have legalized medical marijuana, and 19, including D.C., allow recreational use.)
This is increasingly at odds with the federal government’s classification of marijuana as a “schedule I″ drug, meaning it’s believed to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use in the United States.
Dawson believes these laws and regulations influence policies such as the World Anti-Doping Agency’s. This is especially hypocritical, she said, because the U.S. government has taken out a patent on the medicinal use of cannabis.
Congressional Republicans remain largely opposed to federal legalization of marijuana, despite its increasing popularity in their home states.
“I think they can do other narcotics and things to relieve people’s pain and suffering,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) told Politico. Medical marijuana was legalized in Alabama earlier this year.
A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 44 percent of people opposed legalization at the time. Opponents cited concerns that the drug affects “judgment and motor skills,” that it could lead to the use of other drugs or that it could be detrimental to one’s health.
“We have enough addictive things that are already legal. We don’t need another one,” said one respondent.
The most recent Pew survey on marijuana use shows how much attitudes have shifted in the past few years, with 91 percent of U.S. adults saying they support some form of legalization.
Among the states to legalize recreational marijuana use is Connecticut, where new regulations went into effect on Thursday.
As with other recent laws, the state’s new regulations acknowledge the racist history and effect of cannabis prohibition: Half of all licenses to grow and sell marijuana will be given to low-income applicants, and those who have been convicted of possession can have their records expunged automatically or through an application.
Kebra Smith-Bolden, founder of CannaHealth, a Connecticut-based cannabis business, was a leading advocate for the new law. She was full of pride over the work she and other activists put into making it a reality, but that joy was punctured by news of Richardson’s punishment, she said.
Smith-Bolden, who is Black, fears that, despite growing acceptance, marijuana violations will still disproportionately affect people of color, particularly Black people.
“It’s just like so many stories that I’ve heard over the years, and it’s just a shame that it’s still happening,” she said.
She said Richardson reminds her of young people she’s known: promising students of color bound for college who lost scholarships and financial aid over cannabis arrests — losses that upended their entire lives.
“I think that this is just something to keep this Black woman from reaching the height that she aspires to reach. And that’s not right,” Smith-Bolden said.
Richardson’s suspension circulated alongside news of several top Black female athletes being penalized for various infractions, including Olympic hurdling champion Brianna McNeal, who lost her appeal of a five-year ban for violating anti-doping rules. McNeal, who has not been accused of doping, told the New York Times that the ban came after she missed a drug test in January 2020, because she was in bed recovering from an abortion.
Smith-Bolden hopes the track star fights the suspension, and she plans on rallying marijuana equity organizations behind Richardson.
Dillon believes Richardson and other athletes are “canaries in the coal mine” for future battles over marijuana regulation, highlighting the pitfalls as a greater divide forms among different state regulations, among states and the federal government and among countries.
She keeps coming back to how lucrative the industry is; Research and Markets predicts the cannabis industry will rake in $90.4 billion by 2026.
Dillon has witnessed the high levels of investment in the industry over the years; she knows there are people making a lot of money from cannabis.
Then, there are people like Richardson, “people who are just sort of caught in the tail wind: a 21-year-old who just experienced a major life trauma,” she said.
“That is just like, the ultimate horror of this industry.”