As It Happens·Q&A

This retired Canadian Olympian wants cannabis taken off the Games' banned substances list

The ban on Olympic athletes using cannabis is outdated and needs to change, says retired Canadian Olympic hurdler Perdita Felicien.

Perdita Felicien speaks out after U.S. sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson disciplined for marijuana use

Perdita Felicien is pictured competing in the women's 100-metre hurdles heats during the 2011 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea. (Ian Walton/Getty Images)

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The ban on Olympic athletes using cannabis is outdated and needs to change, says retired Canadian Olympic hurdler Perdita Felicien.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said Friday that American sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson has accepted a 30-day suspension after testing positive for THC, the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana. As a result, her Olympic trials results have been erased, and she won't be allowed to compete in her signature 100-metre dash at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

Richardson told NBC's Today that she accepts full responsibility, and that she smoked marijuana as a way of coping with her mother's recent death.

Her suspension is a massive blow for the gold-medal hopeful, and has reignited a debate over whether cannabis — which studies widely show is not a performance-enhancing drug — should even be on the agency's list of banned substances. 

Felicien is one of several athletes, sports journalists and fans who have voiced their support for Richardson.

LISTEN | Felicien on marijuana in sports:

The athlete-turned-sports broadcaster spoke to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. Here is part of their conversation.

What went through your mind when you heard the news about Sha'Carri Richardson?

I thought it wasn't real. I was shocked and stunned. I kept scrolling through Twitter to find out if this was actually happening. Her star was rising. It was high. And then suddenly it just dropped so suddenly.

She spoke to NBC this morning and she says she used marijuana as a way of coping after she learned about the unexpected death of her biological mother … What do you take away from that?

She found out that her mother died as she was being interviewed. A reporter told her … so that's devastating. 

The truth of the matter is she broke a rule. She knew better. And it's a really devastating, self-inflicted wound. She's 21 years old. She's so young and inexperienced in the sport, and I think she made a really poor choice.

My stance is weed shouldn't be on the banned list. It's not a performance enhancer. If anything, it's just, you know, something WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, just feels is bad for the image of its athletes. And it's been on the list for years. And I don't think it belongs there. It's costing too much.

Sha'Carri Richardson runs and celebrates in the Women's 100-metre semifinal during the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials on June 19. Those results have since been erased after Richardson tested positive for THC. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Hayes Brown with MSNBC wrote an opinion piece and wrote, "Richardson is the latest Black American whose future was put at risk because of arcane and racist drug policies." What do you make of how he feels about this?

If we think about even our own country, weed is now legal. But look at the fight it took to get it to be legal. And if you think about the stigma around drugs, there's the stigma of criminality and negative stereotypes and images. And so if you think about the people who made up this rule, well, who are they? What does it look like? Why are they saying weed is bad and weed is a horrible thing for athletes?

The rule does need to change because times have changed. We know so much more about marijuana and its use. And I think it really is more of an image thing: "Well, you know, a good, positive, wholesome athlete would never use marijuana."

People like [former Olympic snowboarder] Ross Rebagliati have argued marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug — not in the traditional sense, as people might think, but that it can help athletes in terms of their mental game and to deal with anxiety around competition. Do you think there's any merit to that?

If that's the argument, we've got to ban sports psychologists. They help you with your performance. Let's ban coffee, too. Oh, that makes you kind of sharp and perk up. Oh, you know what? While we're at it, let's ban alcohol. How about that, right?

It doesn't make sense. Al Vernec is the medical director for WADA. He used to be the head medical officer for Athletics Canada, a federation that I know well. He has come out to say, as well as a few other experts, that cannabis, weed, does not give athletes a performance-enhancing edge. If that's the case, if WADA's own person is saying this, then it needs to be off the list. 

Felicien, now retired from sports, is calling on the Olympics to rescind its marijuana ban. (Martin Brown)

Do you think we'll see a change in the rules, given how much attention is on Ms. Richardson's situation?

Marijuana is on the list because some 200 countries and 70-plus sport governing bodies have made the consensus that it … belongs there. Unless those powerful agencies and organizations petition strongly to have it removed, it won't go anywhere.

[The U.S.] is the most powerful [of those 200 countries,] I would say. But the issue is, even though our sentiments in North America have changed around marijuana and its use, in other countries it's still very illegal. It's still very taboo. So I don't know if the U.S. by itself, with all its might, can change the needle on this. But I think it would take a lot more countries and governing bodies being with the U.S. to make a change.

WADA is very slow to adopt change, and so even if they were feeling extreme pressures to have this removed from the list, I mean, we're not going to see this removed, I would say, in the next five years, if 10. It's not going anywhere.

Do you think we might still see her on the U.S. Olympic relay team?

That's a complicated loophole that they're facing right now. From the friends and insiders that I've talked to, it seems like the USATF [USA Track & Field], the governing body for track and field in the States, is behind her, which is great. It also sounds like they're exploring a way to get her to run the relays because that's at the end of the Olympics and, of course, her 30-day suspension will be over.

But I think what they have to contend with is, well, what are we saying about if someone breaks the rule, we're still putting her on the team? I think it's a PR thing that they have to weigh at this point.

So to answer this, I think there's a strong sense we might still see her. If the public opinion is in her favour, which it seems to be in everything that I've seen, there's a possibility we'll see her at the relays in Tokyo.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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