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Sha’Carri Richardson and the Spirit of the Game

photograph of blurred sprinters leaving starting blocks

Sprinter and Olympic hopeful Sha’Carri Richardson made headlines recently when she was suspended from the US women’s team after testing positive for THC, a chemical found in marijuana. Using marijuana is in violation of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) World Anti-Doping Code, which includes “all natural and synthetic cannabinoids” on its prohibited list. Richardson has accepted responsibility for violating the rules, and while she stated that she is not looking to be excused, she explained that learning about the death of her biological mother and the subsequent emotional suffering was the reason why she used marijuana, despite knowing that it is a prohibited substance.

Many online expressed their confusion as to why Richardson should be reprimanded so harshly as to potentially miss the upcoming Olympic games, as well as why THC would be on WADA’s list of banned substances in the first place. For instance, while WADA’s justification for including THC on its list of prohibited substances is that it “poses a health risk to athletes, has the potential to enhance performance and violates the spirit of sport,” many online have pointed out that it is debatable as to whether it poses health risks to athletes (especially when compared to other substances which are not the prohibited list, such as alcohol and cigarettes), and that it is a stretch to say that it could enhance one’s athletic performance.

What about marijuana usage violating “the spirit of the sport”? WADA defines this notion in a few ways: as the “intrinsic value” of the sport, “the ethical pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each Athlete’s natural talents,” and “the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind” which is expressed in terms of a number of values like “health,” “fun and joy,” “teamwork,” etc. Let’s focus on the second one: what might it mean to “ethically pursue” human excellence in the way that WADA describes, and did Richardson fail in this regard?

Unfortunately, the WADA Code does not go into details about what is meant by “ethical.” Perhaps the example of an unethical pursuit of human physical excellence that comes immediately to mind is the use of anabolic steroids: the use of such substances may be considered unethical as they represent a kind of shortcut, providing a distinctly unnatural way to enhance one’s talents. Other substances on WADA’s banned substance list potentially provide routes to excellence in sports in more subtle ways: for instance, beta-blockers – which reduce blood pressure and make one’s heart beat more slowly – provide a seemingly unnatural advantage when it comes to sports like archery and shooting. One way to violate the spirit of the sport, then, may involve taking shortcuts to physical improvement and the overcoming of physical obstacles.

As we have seen, however, marijuana does not provide any performance-enhancing effects to sprinters, and indeed is likely to be detrimental, if anything. It is clear that Richardson’s use of marijuana is thus not unethical with respect to taking shortcuts.

Presumably, though, there are more ways to fail to ethically pursue excellence in athletics than using performance-enhancing drugs. For example, if I were to consistently berate my teammates for failing to meet the standards of my supreme physical prowess in an attempt to get a higher spot on the roster, I would presumably be acting unethically in a way that violates the spirit of the sport, as I would be violating numerous values on WADA’s list (I would not, for example, be exemplifying the value of “fun and joy”). Another way to violate the spirit of the sport may thus involve an attempt to succeed by deliberating and intentionally thwarting others in a way besides simply being better at some given competition.

Again, it seems clear that using marijuana to help cope with the emotional pain of a personal tragedy also fails to fall into this category. What about the celebration of “the human spirit, body, and mind”? Maybe one could reason in this way: smoking pot is a trait possessed by the lazy nogoodniks of society, not Olympic athletes. Pot-smokers are not out there training every day, pushing themselves to their physical limits in the pursuit of excellence; instead, they are sitting on the couch, eating an entire pan of brownies, and giggling to themselves while watching Arrested Development for the tenth time. This is the kind of person who does not celebrate the human spirit, or body, or mind.

While this is a caricature, it is perhaps not far from WADA’s own reasoning. For instance, in a recent guidance note, WADA clarified that it identifies some “Substances of Abuse” on the basis of their being “frequently abused in society outside the context of sport.” In addition to marijuana, cocaine, meth, and ecstasy make the list of Substances of Abuse. None of these drugs offer any obvious performance enhancing effects, and it is unclear why they would be included on the list besides the stereotype that the kind of people who use them are, in some way, “bad.” It is unclear, however, why using a drug that can be abused outside of the context of sport should be considered in violation of the spirit of the sport if one is not themselves abusing it.

There are potentially many more angles form which one could approach Richardson’s suspension – for instance, in a tweet Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez highlighted how marijuana laws in the U.S. reflect “policies that have historically targeted Black and Brown communities,” that such laws are beginning to change across the U.S., and that marijuana is legal in the state in which Richardson used it. While there is no doubt that Richardson violated WADA’s rules, it also seems clear that there is good reason to revise them. Indeed, by WADA’s own standards, Richardson’s actions were not unethical, and did not in any way violate the spirit of the game.

Which Voices Matter? Ballot Initiatives, Marijuana, and Legislative Paternalism in Utah

Photograph of a sign for a medical marijuana dispensary

Drivers headed toward Salt Lake City on I-15 are sure to notice two things—the breathtaking Wasatch mountain range (when the thickness of inversion doesn’t obscure it) and a striking number of billboard ads warning citizens of the dangers of the misuse of opioids. This is not without good reason—Utah ranks 9th on the CDC’s list of states hit the hardest by opioid overdose. Misuse of opioids is responsible for 23 deaths every month, according to the Utah Department of Health. Empathy is called for when it comes to addiction in general, and addiction to opioids in particular. After all, many people become addicted to opioids in an attempt to deal with serious pain. If opioids pose such a threat, it makes good sense to think carefully about other approaches to dealing with pain.

In the November election, Utah voters were asked to vote on Proposition 2—an initiated state statute that would legalize medicinal marijuana. Utah is one of twenty-one states that permits citizens to propose ballot measures for vote by citizens at large. In order for an issue to make its way onto the ballot, citizens must demonstrate that the issue is one that a substantial portion of the population wants to take up, and they do so by collecting signatures on a petition.

Ballot initiatives have a long history in American politics.  They have existed in some form since the earliest days of our government. In the late 1800s, the country witnessed a surge in ballot initiatives. Citizens were increasingly concerned that wealthy interest groups had too much power over legislators and that legislation could, essentially be purchased. The ballot initiative came to be viewed as an important check on lawmakers. A system of government that allows for ballot initiatives demonstrates respect for the will of the people when it comes to the construction of crucial social policies.

On November 6, 2018, the notoriously conservative state of Utah surprised the country by passing their marijuana ballot initiative by a margin of 53 to 48. It made the use of cannabis legal for individuals with qualifying medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, cachexia, cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, HIV, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder or ulcerative colitis. Chronic pain and autoimmune disease are also included in the list of conditions covered by Prop 2. A qualifying patient may, every two weeks, obtain up to 2 ounces by weight of unprocessed marijuana, or a processed product containing no more than 10 grams of THC or TBD.  The initiative allowed for private sale of marijuana, in accordance with the guidelines, at a number of dispensaries determined by the population of a given county, with at least one dispensary in each county. The population of counties in Utah results in the possibility of up to forty dispensaries.  The initiative also included a provision for patients suffering from chronic pain who live in remote areas. If a patient lives more than 100 miles away from a dispensary, they are permitted to cultivate up to six marijuana plants.

In conflict with the idea that ballot measures should allow for the voice of the people to serve as a check of legislators is the legal fact that legislators aren’t required to listen to the voice of the people. They can reject or revise initiated state statutes if the proposed rejection or revision has the support of a simple majority in The Utah State Legislature. Indeed, that body had been long at work on a bill, The Utah Medical Marijuana Act, to replace Prop 2. They began their work before voters even had a chance to weigh in. They seemingly never intended to let the voters settle the matter.

The new bill makes a number of significant changes to the policy. First, it reduces the number of dispensaries from 40 to 8 and they will be largely be run by the state.  Second, it reduces the number of illnesses that qualify to be treated with marijuana, getting rid of provisions for most autoimmune disorders and sources of chronic pain that are difficult to diagnose. The new bill also abandons the provision for patients living in rural areas—such patients must either travel to one of the eight dispensaries or deal with their chronic pain in some other way.

Some of the moves being made by Utah legislators are familiar to many—these kinds of strategies are frequently employed in an attempt to prevent easy access to abortion. Legislators may have their hands tied when it comes to making abortion illegal, but they can seriously restrict access, forcing women to either drive great distances, go through with their pregnancies, or abort their babies in ways that pose a threat to their lives and health. Arguably, the Utah Medical Cannabis Act does the same thing. It seriously restricts the locations at which it is possible to get medical marijuana. Legislators know full well that many citizens, especially those in severe pain, won’t have the resources to travel great distances. As a result, medical marijuana remains as good as banned to these segments of the population.  

The similarities between abortion legislation and the Utah Medical Cannabis Act don’t end there. Abortion laws around the country require doctors to read scripts, constructed by the legislators themselves, to patients seeking abortions. They are required to do so even if the script is inconsistent with the expert advice they would choose to give their patients were they allowed to advise freely. In these cases, legislators are behaving as if they know more about the health of patients than trained medical professionals do. Arguably, the Utah Medical Cannabis Act is making the same mistake.  Doctors are the best judges of the kinds of illnesses that cause pain, and they are in the best position to make recommendations on how that pain would best be tackled. If a doctor, in his or her expert opinion, thinks pain would better be treated with marijuana than with opioids, for example, many would argue that the doctor’s judgment should be respected.

The bill was passed as a result of coordination between a number of interested parties. One of these parties is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In advance of the election, the church sent out an e-mail to its members, urging them to vote no on Prop 2. They advised their members that “Its proponents assert that it will make medical marijuana available to those suffering with debilitating pain and other infirmities. However, in truth it goes much further, creating a serious threat to health and public safety, especially for our youth and young adults, by making marijuana generally available with few controls.” It seems as if the church strongly influenced the election results with their actions and then continued to push their particular agenda in the form of the bill passed by the legislature. Many find this level of influence by a religious organization to be morally objectionable. Religions wield tremendous coercive influence over their members.  Reason may motivate a voter to vote one way in an election, and their perception of what God wants them to do might motivate them to vote in a different way. Between these two alternatives, many devout religious people will do the thing they have reason to believe God wants them to do.

This case has many moving parts, morally speaking, and it motivates a cluster of questions. When should the voice of the people be taken seriously and when is it appropriate for the legislature to behave paternalistically? When the voice of the people expresses that they want a ban to be lifted, is it morally fair to replace a ban with restrictions that are, as a practical matter, not much different from a ban? Should legislators be in the business of telling doctors how best to treat their patients? How involved is it morally appropriate for churches to be in elections and the construction of laws?


Why Jeff Sessions Should End his War on Marijuana

A photo of Jeff Sessions on stage

Six in 10 Americans believe that marijuana should be legalized. Yet, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions has openly declared a “War on Marijuana.” Sessions recently reversed several policies enacted by President Obama, making it easier for prosecutors to enforce federal laws regarding marijuana in states where it is either medically or recreationally legal. So far, marijuana is recreationally legal in eight states and medically legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, making it both a large recreational and medical industry.

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Marijuana’s Pesticide Problem

A wealth of information, both reputable and otherwise, can be found about the health effects of marijuana. Amid claims that the drug can cure cancer and studies documenting its negative health repercussions, it is sometimes difficult to get a sense of just how using marijuana could affect one’s health. However, one of the most clear-cut health concerns involving marijuana may not even stem from the drug itself. According to The Atlantic’s Brooke Borel, every time marijuana users light up, they are not just inhaling the intoxicating smoke. With it also comes sometimes-dangerous levels of pesticides – chemicals that, at least for now, go almost completely unregulated.

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Communion of a Different Kind

When the authors of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed it into law, marijuana churches were probably the last things on their mind. Yet, only a few months after the act’s passing, Indiana’s First Church of Cannabis has been established. Existing under the freedoms established by RFRA, the church operates on principles of “love, respect, equality and compassion,” with marijuana as its official sacrament. While many have cast it as a joke or a political statement against RFRA, the church also raises a number of questions about how the government can and should interact with organized religion.

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