Sha'Carri Richardson, JFK and two Prohibitions

Opinion: Sha’Carri Richardson, JFK, and two Prohibitions

How the sports world treats cannabis is a problem.

An obvious lack of cannabis understanding is an ever-growing crisis.

Penalizing of a star athlete, for using cannabis legally and responsibly, is a home-grown, American tragedy.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency suspended world-class runner, Sha’Carri Richardson, on Friday. The move followed a drug test that showed cannabis in her system. That alone is being used to keep her from next month’s Tokyo Olympics, where many expected her to medal.

It’s far from the first prohibition tragedy, and it won’t be the last.

While President Joe Biden can blithely say that “the rules are the rules,” those rules were pushed by the government he leads. It’s his responsibility to fix unjust laws. The system falls heavier on people who look like Sha’Carri Richardson than like Joe Biden. That system can’t continue.

Like alcohol prohibition before it, cannabis prohibition hurts some, but not others. Like the plant, itself, it shouldn’t hurt anyone.

Profiles In Legalization and John F. Kennedy

I created Profiles In Legalization as a creative nonfiction project. Monthly profiles of significant figures in cannabis legalization will begin with Steven W. Hawkins of the Marijuana Policy Project in September. The name and aesthetic for the project– and the resulting policy site– are a play on JFK’s iconic 1953 book, Profiles in Courage.

JFK wrote about senators he admired for standing up to great pressure. They stuck to their principles even knowing their own voters would make them pay. Considering the past decade, I have a less generous view of politicians. I do have great respect; however, for the people working to end cannabis prohibition. Their successes will benefit people like Sha’Carri Richardson and remedy the ugly stigmas that prohibition created.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and its push as a “War on Drugs” prohibited cannabis after the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was overturned. But when most Americans hear “Prohibition,” they think of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s. Rum running up from Florida, and whisky flowing south from Canada.

The Volstead Act, also known as the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banned alcohol possession and consumption throughout the United States. Then, as now, the rules were widely flouted. When they were applied, it was against certain kinds of people, but to the benefit of others.

A notable beneficiary of 1920s Prohibition was Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the 35th President of the United States.

Sha’Carri Richardson and Jack Kennedy: Two shining stars

John F. Kennedy and Sha’Carri Richardson may seem an odd paring, but there are some similarities. Both were trailblazers who showed great talent. Both were heroes to their respective ethnic communities. Both had plenty to offer the world, at a young age. Both of their lives were impacted by prohibition. The primary difference seems to be their parentage, and their skin tone.

I know policy and history better than sports, but the news sources I trust say Sha’Carri Richardson is an exceptional talent. If allowed to compete, she’d have a shot at the gold in Tokyo. The USADA is preventing that because she used a substance less addictive than nicotine and less lethal than aspirin.

While others risked their lives smuggling alcohol into the United States, Joe Kennedy wisely remained aloof. He financed his activities from a safe distance. His foresight in exploiting an unjust law made him and his family rich. It also gave him legitimacy and important contacts. He served as America’s most important ambassador, to the U.K., until Hitler declared war.

Joseph Kennedy couldn’t have had a government career if he were caught violating Prohibition laws. It would have hung around his neck like a drug charge today. The United Kingdom would have looked down on a convicted criminal as America’s ambassador. He also wouldn’t have had the money to bankroll his son Jack’s political ambitions. Not without the windfall that Prohibition was for them.

The Kennedy family only benefitted from alcohol Prohibition. They had the connections, and the craftiness, to move from organized crime to legitimacy. Most people don’t have that ability. And people like Sha’Carri Richardson are the collateral victims of the current United States prohibition. The already legitimate, being brought down by ignorance.

Related: Cannabis Community, Notables show support for Sha’Carri Richardson

Sha’Carri Richardson’s tragedy, compounded

Sha’Carri Richardson received a one month suspension. To go with it, she must complete a patronizing substance abuse program. The USADA suspension was for legal use of a non-performance-enhancing substance. Unlike Jack Kennedy, Sha’Carri Richardson doesn’t have rich, connected parents. Her mother died recently and that’s where the cannabis comes in.

According to her statements, Sha’Carri used cannabis to cope with the loss of her biological mother. Trauma survivors and military vets can confirm the efficacy of cannabis for treating post-traumatic stress. But a law created in a bygone time hasn’t been corrected in almost half a century. If Sha’Carri had gotten blind drunk, instead, she’d be fine.

Alcohol’s practically encouraged as a social good since its own prohibition failed. If Sha’Carri Richardson drank her sorrows away in a bar, news outlets would now be reporting on her exceptional athletic prowess. Instead, she used a non-toxic plant that has yet to record a fatality. She used it legally, discreetly and not as part of sport.

According to the federal government, cannabis “has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.” A strange claim in a country where 36 of the 50 United States have medical cannabis laws.

Though well-intentioned legislators like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez protest the decision, what’s needed is real change. A federal government that ignores the will of its states lacks democratic legitimacy. Over 70% of U.S. residents live where cannabis is legal for medical use with a doctor’s recommendation. Their will is clear.

Cannabis Prohibition Needs to End

I can’t imagine much worse than losing a parent. The USADA compounded Sha’Carri Richardson’s pain over rules founded on ignorance and racism. The federal government still won’t state the obvious: these rules are unfair and unjust.

Unsurprisingly, the harm from their inaction falls more heavily on people of color, regardless of talent.

The War on Drugs has destroyed the potential of so many. In the name of “beating” drugs, we’ve criminalized large swathes of the community. Oregon became the first state to decriminalize all drugs last year. It’s time to follow their lead and consider the harm caused by the “drug war,” not by the drugs themselves.

The bottom line is that the United States needs decriminalization, legalization and education on cannabis. Until that happens, it will continue to create prohibition victims.

Sha’Carri Richardson is the latest victim of cannabis prohibition, but she won’t be the last.


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