The stigma surrounding marijuana usage has vastly changed in the public eye in recent years but both professional and amateur athletics are still catching up.
A perfect example came just recently when 21-year-old track and field phenom Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for marijuana after she had qualified to represent the United States in the 2021 Olympic games. While she only faced a 30-day suspension for the infraction, Richardson would not be cleared in time to compete alongside her teammates at the upcoming games in Tokyo.
In the days following Richardson’s suspension, there’s been a very public debate about whether or not she should have been allowed to run at the Olympics. Many have stated that Richardson shouldn’t be forced out of the Olympics simply for using marijuana while others have argued that the rules were in place and she’s openly admitted to breaking them.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist and 2019 PFL champion Kayla Harrison—widely considered the greatest judo practitioner in American history and now one of the fastest rising stars in MMA—understands the frustration felt over Richardson’s suspension, but she also knows the sacrifices athletes are asked to make in order to compete within the rules.
“It’s just tough,” Harrison told MMA Fighting. “I think the problem I have with it — I’ve smoked weed, I’m not like Miss Goody Two Shoes, I’ve tried it, I don’t do it regularly, for my own personal reasons I just don’t do it, and I have also been drug tested by USADA since I was 13, and I very clearly knew that the rules were you can’t smoke weed.
“My biggest problem with it is if you know what the rule is and you choose to do it anyway, that’s nobody’s fault but your own. That’s my opinion on it.”
While marijuana is still listed on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substances list for athletes in competition, numerous sanctioning bodies have moved to change their own rules regarding usage of the drug.
Earlier this year, the USADA revised their own rules in regards to the UFC’s anti-doping policy where athletes no longer face any discipline for a positive drug test for marijuana.
On Wednesday, the Nevada Athletic Commission followed suit with a unanimous vote to stop punishing athletes who happen to test positive for marijuana in the state.
For her part, Harrison isn’t going to advocate for a rule change when it comes to how the USADA chooses to deal with Olympic athletes because ultimately that’s not her decision to make.
“Do I think that the rules should be changed? I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist,” Harrison explained. “I don’t know the benefits of smoking pot versus not smoking pot. I don’t know if it helps with anxiety and performance anxiety. I don’t know. I have no idea if it’s a performance-enhancing drug.
“Do I think it is? Probably not but that’s not my place to give that opinion. I do believe though that if you know the rules and you willingly break them, then there are going to be consequences for those actions. It is what it is.”
In her own career, Harrison has actually gone as far as avoiding regular everyday supplements in order to keep her body healthy just out of an abundance of caution that a contaminated substance could result in a positive drug test.
Some might call that extreme but Harrison never wanted anything to taint her legacy as an athlete and no matter how much she might proclaim her innocence, it only takes one positive test to ruin everything in the court of public opinion.
“I have lived my life where I don’t even take multi-vitamins because I am so paranoid,” Harrison said. “Like what would happen if I ever tested positive for something? Even if it was an accident and I didn’t willingly take anything. Your reputation, your legacy, all of that is tarnished forever. I have a lot of doctors who are like ‘you should take this supplement, you should take this supplement, we need to get you on some ashwagandha and this and that’ and it’s just hard.
“I want to feel better. Physically, I want my body to feel better. I want to perform at 100 percent. I want to be the best possible version of me but I’m also like what if there’s freaking, I don’t know, some stupid trace of some stupid thing in this and then I pop hot? This is my legacy. This is my career. It’s on me. That’s terrifying.”
Harrison definitely advocates for a clean sport and a level playing field amongst competitors but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some questionable decisions made where anti-doping is concerned.
That said, Harrison always followed the rules set forth by the International Olympic Committee when she was pursuing her gold medals and she knows Richardson could have done exactly the same if she wanted to run in the 2021 games.
“I’m a fighter who wants to be clean, fight clean, I don’t want to fight people who are dirty,” Harrison said. “I believe in pursuing sports to the highest of abilities with moral and integrity and upholding the beauty of what the human body can do just by itself. Not what a human robot can do with all these things inside their system. But how do you keep sports clean? There’s a new steroid out there every week. There’s a new this variation of this and this and this. I don’t know. I believe in drug testing. I believe in USADA.
“I believe what they’re trying to do but it also kind of sucks. Cause I could take an iron supplement and something could be wrong with it and I could test positive and there goes my career. But if you know that you’re not supposed to smoke weed, don’t smoke weed.”