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The Punitive War on Drugs Harms Sha'Carri Richardson— and Many Other Black Women

When Alice Coachman shattered every barrier and became the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in 1948, her accomplishment set the stage for what would lead to decades of Olympic games benefitting from Black female athletes’ grit, determination, style, and star quality. It set the stage for Sha’Carri Richardson.  

Just a few weeks ago, Richardson awed us on her journey as an inspirational athlete and icon. Then the news broke that a THC-positive drug test would disqualify her from competing in the Olympic 100-meter race. Now, there are reports she has been left off the 4 x100 meter relay team, which will compete after her 30-day ban ends.  

What the world is seeing in real time is how the now 50-year-old racist and politically motivated ‘War on Drugs’ has infiltrated our everyday lives, far beyond jails and prisons. Its tentacles have spread, with drug testing and other rules and regulations that prohibit recreational drug use and unnecessary punitive reactions. These are tools of the drug war, yet drug testing does nothing to show a current, existing state of impairment. It does, however, unjustly rob individuals of their livelihoods, future, and dreams. And for what? 

There is a wealth of research and information on the unfair ways in which these practices have failed our communities and have specially targeted Black and Brown people. Governing institutions’ investments in surveillance and punishments as a response to drug use is not only unscientific, it’s actively harmful. It has led to devastating disruption in all aspects of life including education, employment, child welfare, housing, immigration, and family support structures. And too often it’s Black women who face the brunt of the impact. 

As a nation, we must end these practices and create new opportunities that correct the abuses of this “War” which have led to Black, Latinx, low-income, and immigrant populations suffering higher rates of incarceration and divestment from health care, non-police alternatives to public safety, and education in their communities.  

We’ve seen how racist non-consensual drug testing of Black and Latinx parents can lead to newborn children being ripped from their parents’ arms over allegations. And we’ve called out how faulty drug tests have been used to torture incarcerated people with solitary confinement. Now a young, autonomous Black woman is at the center of the firestorm.   

Naysayers have taunted and blamed Richardson, saying she should have “followed the rules.” First, let’s acknowledge this way of thinking is often disingenuous and ignores the evidence emerging that marijuana is only banned by the USADA (US Anti-Doping Agency) because of pressure from the White House, not because of concerns over performance enhancement.  

What is lacking is compassion, grace, and the same ingenious problem-solving and concern for humanity that has created a legal marijuana market that grossed USD $9.1 billion in 2020 worldwide. 

Arbitrary criminalization like this across many aspects of our society— from housing policies to employment practices and education policing— leads to surveilling and penalizing Black people for simply existing. However, the rules are also inconsistent.  

Sha’Carri reportedly used marijuana in Oregon—a state where adult use is legal. In fact, her consumption in a legal state might have been considered acceptable by USADA code, which prohibits marijuana only during in-competition periods. These policies also reinforce that use of the drug does not indicate a sign of addiction or problematic use.  

What is lacking is compassion, grace, and the same ingenious problem-solving and concern for humanity that has created a legal marijuana market that grossed USD$9.1 billion in 2020 worldwide.  

These punitive policies and their harsh enforcement ensure a far greater impact beyond lost economic opportunities. Richardson’s disqualification is not the first story that we’ve heard out of the 2021 Olympics that attempts to strip athletes of their dignity and their right to compete on a world stage. However, as with other cases involving drug testing, it has been the most efficient and effective at crushing opportunity— a fate experienced by far too many Americans because of biased drug testing practices. 

Richardson has already explained her rationale for her actions and apologized publicly. But she shouldn’t have to apologize for being an autonomous Black woman and for the choices she makes to navigate her life and recent trauma (she chose to use marijuana to cope with the grief of just losing her biological mother).   

Let me be clear: I would stand with Richardson even if she used to relax or for a fun night out with friends. The marijuana rule is draconian, politically motivated, and scientifically flimsy. Some people solely believe she is deserving of compassion because she used cannabis to cope with her biological mom’s death, but I disagree with that vigorously. As Richardson said, she is a human— and for me that is enough, especially when we know the rule is illegitimate. Black women don’t have to share their pain to get your sympathy. Richardson deserves our support because it is the right thing to do.   

What we’ve seen this week with Sha’Carri Richardson’s journey is the insidious ways in which testing as a tool can create a destructive cycle, suddenly and viciously. But let this be the catalyst for change. Let Richardon’s story change the policy: The USADA must undo this archaic, inhumane, and unscientific policy. Let her run. 

But this is also more than just one USADA policy. 

We see outdated and wrongheaded criminalization and targeting because of marijuana every day in our work. Sha’Carri’s suspension serves as a cautionary tale and a reminder of how insidious the drug war is in our everyday lives, far beyond the carceral state. 

WATCH: At ESSENCE Festival of Culture 2021, Black women discuss how incarceration aims to dehumanize people and their fight to raise awareness of struggles post-incarceration.

Finally, marijuana should be legal for all. The House should pass the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) Act H.R. 3617– absent of a harmful provision that was added to exclude federal workers of drug testing protections—to decriminalize and deschedule cannabis as a critical first step toward racial justice and equity. We can jumpstart that by finally taking the lead to undo the draconian policies that they have spread across the world and influenced the Olympics. Let Sha’Carri run and let’s get rid of drug testing in this country once and for all – so we can create a world where more Black girls run free and scream “I’m that girl”! 

From low-income communities to Olympic-caliber athletes—and the communities that have lost the most cannot wait any longer. We need unequivocal commitment to comprehensive federal legalization, an end to policing and surveillance, evidence-based drug education, and drug policies now. 

Ending the drug war would mean a restoration of dignity and respect within affected communities— especially for Black women— and create new avenues for better health outcomes, safety, and overall quality of life. It would allow Sha’Carri to run without fear of an arbitrary policy crushing her dream. No one should be subjected to contradictory and punitive rules about what they can and cannot put in their own bodies.  

Kassandra Frederique is the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Drug Policy Alliance is a national organization working in coalition to eliminate punishment for drug use and repair the harms of the drug war and its policies.

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