One Drug, Two Worlds: Sha’Carri Richardson’s Suspension Highlights Double Standard for Marijuana

“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.”

—Kassandra Frederique, the Drug Policy Alliance

Sha’Carri Richardson (Wikimedia Commons)

With her impressive athleticism and charming interview responses, Sha’Carri Richardson became an instant fan favorite after winning the women’s 100-meter race at the Olympic trials in June. Richardson’s win in the trials came just one week after the death of her biological mother, which she learned about from a reporter. 

This outpouring of support was quickly put to the test when it came out that Richardson tested positive for marijuana and would be suspended for one month. Recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon, the state where Richardson used the drug and tested positive—as well as in 17 other states. Yet even still, in an interview with TODAY, Richardson explained that she used marijuana to cope with her mother’s death and apologized for her usage, saying, “I greatly apologize if I let you guys down, and I did.” Despite these efforts, Richardson will not be able to participate in the Olympics this year.

Responses have been mixed, but many have defended the young athlete, with a petition to “Let Sha’Carri Run!” garnering nearly half a million signatures. But more than that, Richardson’s suspension and disqualification over marijuana is a reminder that U.S. laws are not moving as fast as U.S. public opinion—and this growing gap continues to disproportionately affect people of color.

“Drug testing is yet another tool of the drug war, and it’s a failure. 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,” wrote Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance in a statement

Richardson’s suspension also has the attention of lawmakers: On July 2, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) wrote a letter to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency arguing that recreational marijuana use should not be a barrier to participating in the Olympics as it is not a performance-enhancing drug. “We are also concerned that the continued prohibition of marijuana while your organizations allow recreational use of alcohol and other drugs reflects anti-drug laws and policies that have historically targeted Black and Brown communities while largely condoning drug use in white communities,” wrote the representatives.

The treatment of Richardson is a symptom of a much larger problem: As the weed industry booms and more and more states legalize the drug, racist anti-drug laws are still impacting Black people at a disproportionate rate. While marijuana has become mainstream and acceptable for white people, many Black people are still suffering from outdated laws, over-policing and harassment, and unfair treatment in the criminal justice system. 

The beginning of the U.S. war on drugs as we know it started with the presidency of Richard Nixon. John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, admitted the “war on drugs” was a direct attack on “the antiwar left and Black people.” This led to a sharp increase in incarceration rates, disproportionate rates of people of color being imprisoned and punitive sentencing rules all while having no significant impact on deterring drug use. Forty years after the war on drugs began in 1971, it is far past time for a change to these policies. 

For white people, weed is often treated as a funny anecdote rather than a serious offense. Recall when Seth Rogen and Conan O’Brien smoked a joint on television. Or when Elon Musk lit up on Joe Rogan’s podcast and CNN called it “another installment in the extraordinary saga of Elon Musk.” Smoking weed is an expected teenage rite of passage, a blip in the course of a larger story. For Black people, however, the same act can alter the entire narrative of their lives. 

Black people are still 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white people, despite similar rates of usage. Black and Latinx people make up only 31 percent of the population, but almost half of all marijuana arrests.

And even as the cannabis industry grows, it remains primarily white, with high operation costs making the business difficult to break into. More than 80 percent of the weed industry is run by white people. “Guys like me who went to prison for selling weed are watching as rich white guys are now making millions doing the exact same thing I went to prison for,” Edward Forchion told INSIDER

With cannabis legalized recreationally in 18 states, two-thirds of Americans supporting its legalization, and a public view of marijuana as less harmful than alcohol, it’s easy to believe there’s a simple path to marijuana legalization. But as Richardson’s suspension proves, it seems we are farther away than we might think.

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Meredith Abdelnour is an editorial fellow for Ms. magazine. She studies English and Environmental Studies at Tulane University and enjoys crossword puzzles.