Bad rules are made to be broken

Sha'Carri Richardson's expulsion from the Olympics highlights the absurdity of rules concerning weed and drug testing

It’s a safe bet that most people who smoke weed have had to worry at some point in their lives about being “caught.”

Private organizations get to make whatever rules they want. So even if cannabis is legal in your state, your consumption habits as an adult may still be governed by some outside force. 

Renters, for example, can be (and in many cases are) explicitly told “no” to smoking weed in rental units. This deference to landlords exists because of laws, such as California’s Prop 64, which mandate that cannabis, though legal, must be consumed within the comfort of one’s own property. That’s obviously difficult to do if your place of residency doesn’t allow it, but certain cities, like San Francisco, are beginning to challenge this thinking.

Those of us with both jobs and a penchant for smoking weed are also out of luck in other respects. When it comes to looking for work, employers have broad rights to drug test both current and would-be employees (luckily, there’s a new job search engine, called Phynally, that scans job postings and finds offerings that are 420-friendly).

I once turned down a lucrative job offer for two reasons: Mentally, I was on my way out of that career, anyway, and the job required mandatory drug testing for marijuana. I knew I would pass because, at that point in time, I had been on one of my periodic breaks from smoking weed. But I was thoroughly grossed out by the requirement. It turns out that the firm’s CEO had a brother who sadly died due to substance use disorder. As a result, the CEO went on a personal anti-drug campaign that extended to dictating what his employees put in their bodies and when. I understand that trauma has a way of changing one’s worldview, but forcing that worldview on other people—especially one that is thoroughly debunked by science—is not something I can get behind. So, I said, “No, thanks,” and here we are.

I was lucky to have the option to walk away. Most people don’t have a choice. In California, employers are allowed to require “suspicionless” drug tests as a condition of employment, according to the California Chamber of Commerce. Again, that is being challenged. But most places aren’t California, and, even here, a legislative proposal to do away with workplace cannabis testing faces steep opposition. Federal employees in any jurisdiction are shit out of luck. That, too, is beginning to squeak open just the tiniest bit, despite the Biden administration firing employees earlier this year for having used cannabis.

Before going on, I need to make the point that nobody is advocating for using cannabis while on the job (though, perhaps another time, I’d love to tell you all about how my cannabis use aids my writing!). The problem with testing for cannabis, in general, is that it doesn’t determine current intoxication, which makes it particularly insidious. It’s a determination on use, in general, which obviously includes off-the-clock consumption. Last time I checked, how we spend our time when we’re not being paid by someone else is up to our individual selves.

I mention my experiences with my past would-be employer because it shows how drug testing is not actually about bosses worrying about their stoned employees fucking up on the job, but rather how much they view said employees as little more than vessels of monetary value . Ultimately, it’s about control.

That brings us to 21-year-old Sha’Carri Richardson, the runner who has been disqualified from competing in this summer’s Olympics because she tested positive for THC and failed a drug test. She accepted a one-month suspension from U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and owned up to it immediately, saying she used cannabis while bummed out over the recent death of her mother. Part of her response, which she posted to Twitter, included a simple declaration: “I am human.” Her suspension included a mandatory “Substance of Abuse” treatment program.

Once the news broke, the USADA, as well as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), made a number of claims to the New York Times that they used to justify its decision to suspend her. I’m not here to debate whether or not Richardson broke the rules (she did) or whether or not a special exception should be made for her so she can compete. What’s worth examining is whether the rules are valid or not, as well as the context in which they are being applied.

Sure, “rules are rules,” but what if the rules are discriminatory, punitive, and ill-informed? It’s also worth pointing out that Richardson is a Black woman who’s being publicly penalized for using a substance that everyone uses (regardless of its legal status) and that the war on drugs was disproportionately brutal on people of color. 

“The idea that ‘she should have known better’ is rife with judgement when we all have 20/20 vision in hindsight,” says Arlene Pitterson, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Cannaclusive, a cannabis consulting agency. “I said it, too, initially, then checked myself. Deprogramming yourself from the respectability ideals that have been indoctrinated by family and friends as a way to protect your race is a daily practice.

“Between the governing bodies for the Olympics and the United States, this ideal, perfect athlete that makes no mistakes, wins their race, and is celebrated has been pushed as the goal,” Pitterson says. “In reality, these athletes stumble, fall, get back up and try again until they reach their goal. There is a beauty in the stumble, that we are human and need not carry the whole pressure to uphold the image of a race because of excelling in a sport.”

Pitterson says that Richardson took responsibility in the face of extreme trauma—something she should actually be celebrated for—and is merely being punished for being a confessed user of a maligned medicinal product. But the truth is that the playing field was never actually equal, and that Richardson was playing a game that would be harder to win from the get-go because she’s Black.

“The idea that being clean cut with an education will limit how your white peers will view and respect you has been debunked. A conservative governing body will only respect what aligns to their ideal athlete,” Pitterson says, referring to USADA, WADA, and other sports governing agencies.

To justify their bans, both WADA and USADA  on argue that cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug

“I find that hysterical,” says Duffy MacKay, N.D., SVP of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at San Diego-based CV Sciences.

“The [cannabis] industry gets so criticized for not being science-based and USADA must understand, from a scientific perspective, how ludicrous that statement is,” MacKay says. “There is no evidence that marijuana is a performance enhancing drug at any level,” he adds. He goes on to say that if these agencies were to say, simply, that cannabis is a controlled substance and it’s illegal, “that might have made sense.” But that’s not the reason they gave.

MacKay makes an interesting point—companies peddling legal cannabis have to be extremely careful when making claims about what cannabis products can or cannot do the body, how they may or may not be able to treat or cure various ailments, lest they run afoul of the FDA. If there were any legitimate credence to cannabis being performance-enhancing, it can be assured, cannabis companies would have already been all over it, marketing their products as such and specifically targeting athletes. That phenomenon doesn’t exist, and with good reason: there is no science in existence that supports the claim that cannabis is in any way directly performance-enhancing when it comes to athletic activity.

Where cannabis being performance-enhancing may come into play is how athletes use the plant to unwind. MacKay offers the example of professional athletes who leave the profession and suddenly invest in cannabis companies, often coming clean about personal use throughout the years, as well. “In reality, they use it for relaxation and its anti-inflammatory effects,” MacKay says.

Matt Barnes, NBA champion and current advisor to Eaze’s board, tells me that he has been smoking weed since he was 14 years old. The 41-year-old ex-NBA star didn’t stop smoking throughout his 15-year-long career in the NBA; rather, he just timed it to line up with the league’s periodic and predictable drug tests. Many other players did and continue to do just that, as well, he says.

These are “outdated rules made by, and I say this with all due respect, older, outdated people,” Barnes says. “A lot of stuff needs to be revisited,” he says, referring to cannabis use by athletes, “whether it’s the Olympics, professional sports, or the workplace. People are stuck on the old stigma of cannabis.”

Specifically, Barnes explains that he had a tough childhood where he was raised by “functional drug addicts” who consumed many different kinds of intoxicating substances in front of him, none of which he ever touched. Weed helped him “relax and sleep” throughout high school, college, and his NBA career, including when dealing with the specific stress of paparazzi, gossip rags, and the speculation surrounding his divorce and dating life.

“I couldn’t speak about this in the late 90s or early 2000s because it made you a ‘pothead,’” Barnes says. “Meanwhile, I had a 15-year long NBA career and I smoked the entire time. So, I just think that the only thing that is making our stories finally stick and resonate is that there’s medical research backing this up. I’ve been saying forever that it does this-and-that for me, but now the science is there,” he says.

Barnes is spot on—scientific research, aided in large part by fervent activism, is what has changed many hearts and minds when it comes to considering cannabis use and acceptability. And though there are studies being done on how cannabis can affect the body during sports and other physical activity, the prevailing wisdom is that, for the most part, it could actually be a hindrance, rather than a boon.

Whatever benefit cannabis use does bring to athletes largely centers around relaxation and pain management. This is similar to other over-the-counter remedies, some of which, like NSAIDs, are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths a year. Contrast that with cannabis, which has a death rate of “essentially zero,” says MacKay.

Because of that, MacKay takes issue with another claim made by USADA to justify its ban on cannabis, which is that it’s a “health risk to athletes.” He concedes that smoking and combustion will never be technically healthy, especially not so for athletes, but that, otherwise, on the “spectrum of things athletes use to manage aches, pains, and anxieties, cannabis is very low on the list.” He advocates for re-evaluating this so-called health risk on a “risk-benefit scale.” He offers the NFL’s recent decision to commit money to cannabis research for pain management as proof that things may be changing.

There are other happenings that suggest the winds of change are coming. Many professional leagues accept the use of CBD, for example. Additionally, the NBA suspended testing for cannabis during the 2020-21 season. "Due to the unusual circumstances in conjunction with the pandemic, we have agreed with the NBPA to suspend random testing for marijuana for the 2020-21 season and focus our random testing program on performance-enhancing products and drugs of abuse," NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said in a statement that directly contradicts USADA’s justification for its continual ban on cannabis use by athletes under its jurisdiction.

And, just today, Nevada sports regulators voted that athletes will no longer be penalized over a positive test for cannabis. So that’s all quite nice, but it doesn’t help Sha’Carri Richardson or anyone else who is currently sidelined because they committed the grievous sin of being good at sports while also liking pot.

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Buy this book

My friend and fellow cannabis writer Andrew Ward recently published a book called The Art of Marijuana Etiquette. I checked in with Ward, who lives in Brooklyn, to find out what his new book is all about.

1. Why is a book on cannabis etiquette needed?

The cannabis community is always shifting due to evolving culture, preferences and most recently regulations. The shifting regs have improved accessibility immensely. And in regions where people still can't buy legally, acceptance for the plant continues to gain ground regardless. With all that going on, it made sense to put out a book that covers the crucial, classic, under-the-radar and even superfluous rules that make this community what it is today.

Then, you can factor in COVID. That came about during the first edit of the book. With sharing and community, two cannabis community components, on hold, I felt like Marijuana Etiquette could be one of the few resources to touch on the evolving community while also considering this cataclysmic year and a half the world's experienced. 

2. What's the WORST cannabis etiquette moment you've experienced? What happened?

Worst personal one, by far, goes back to college: I was at a party smoking with some friends and few acquaintances who were providing the joint. We started smoking, and after two passes around the circle my vision starts getting blurry and my balance starts to feel off. I'm wondering what's happening, because I had maybe one or two drinks before that. That's when the host decided to let us know he laced the joint with PCP. 

I tried playing it cool but was pissed. But more so I had no idea what to do. By the time I got upstairs, the party felt like The White Stripes' Hardest Button to Button video. I tried laying down in the middle of a party. My friends reminded me of how bad of an idea that was when surrounded by 19 year old frat guys. So, I went out in the snow, threw up what I can only remember as a huge amount of orange liquid, then grabbed my friend so we could go home.

Long story short, tell people if they're about to smoke something laced. It's common decency. 

3. What's the most surprising tip readers could be surprised to learn?

I think it might be that the classic rules aren't so literal but are more used to embrace the spirit. While some may hold you to taking two hits and passing to the left, many circles don't care what you do as long as everyone in the group is cool with it. It's less about the hits you take and more the environment you help create. Be generous, be considerate and respect those around you. 

Also, some dudes may learn that their plug doesn't find them even remotely sexually appealing. Stop making things creepy. It's not cool. 

4. What has changed since we have gone inside and come back out, weed etiquette-wise?

Sharing is a big ol' TBD at this point. While some have gone back to sharing or indicate they will soon, plenty of people in my circle seem to be swearing off sharing. One of my close PR friends used to provide copious amounts of joints during interviews and events. Now, they're bringing their own and encouraging others to do the same. We'll see how long it lasts, but I do wonder how much of a sustained effect this will have on the sharing aspects of cannabis. 

5. What's a fact about you that most readers might not know?

On a professional level, they may not know this is my second book, with Cannabis Jobs coming out in 2019. But more interesting than that is:

- I got involved in cannabis after being laid off from a startup in 2017, with the owners hugging me after they fired me

- I had a bit role in a terrible National Lampoon movie directed by Christopher Meloni

- I was in a Myspace-themed pop punk video by a band that would eventually be sponsored by Dr. Pepper

- I've been momentarily featured on at least two episodes of the Maury Povich show from 20 years ago

- I wrote a zombie stoner comedy about Donald Glover, Ilana Glazer and Clark Duke escaping New York. I'm still waiting on Donald's people to get back to me. 

Things I have published, et cetera

In the June/July issue of Wine Enthusiast there is a feature by me about how California’s wine industry helped the cannabis industry gain an appellations system. I used to be a wine writer, so this was an exceptionally fun return to form.

I was a guest on the PV Untfiltered podcast. If you’re familiar at all with George from Platinum Vapes, you’ll know we had an excellent time. If you’re not, do acquaint yourself.

I was also a guest on Andy Wagner’s Cannablogger’s Corner podcast, where we finally got to meet in person and smoke and chat in his lovely backyard. He’s a fellow San Diegan and both of our podcasts (mine is on hiatus after Season One) are hosted on the YEW Network.

I moderated a panel for Coldwell Banker Commercial about the current state of cannabis and commercial real estate (it’s more interesting than you would think). Here’s a nice written recap.

I wrote about one of my favorite segments of the legal weed market, value brands, for Uproxx.

I wrote about LGBTQIA-friendly companies to support not just during Pride, but year-round, for Uproxx, with a little aside on how the queer and cannabis rights have a long, intertwined history.

I wrote about my actual favorite CBD brand, Xula Herbs. It was founded by two queer, femme, non-white women, which is a big deal in cannabis space, IMO. Their CBD + other plant medicine formulas legitimately, actually work for period stuff. They are magical. Buy it now. I am not in any way paid to say this, I am just flabbergasted at how well their products actually work. Anyway, I wrote about them for Uproxx. Earlier this year, I also gushed over one of the founders’ cannabis cookbooks for this piece.

Eat this

One of my current favorite summer treats are Kanha’s gummies, which clock in at 10% THC a pop.

I am a very specific type of edibles consumer: These days I eat at least one each day, usually at night, except for the weekends, when I’m more likely to eat them throughout the day. Sometimes I like to dose higher, but I like to keep it in the 10-20% range, which is where I still feel functional but just funny enough for it to make a difference in my body.

This pink guava flavor is delicious and limited-time only, so, people in California, Canada, Colorado, Nevada, and Massachusetts, get on it. I also like Kanha’s nano gummies, which utilize nanoemulsion technology, therefore increasing the bioavailability of THC in the body and making it hit faster. Ideal for socializing, IMO.

Also, hot tip: strain-specific edibles are a marketing gimmick. THC converts to another compound once in your liver, called 11-Hydroxy-THC, and that process eliminates any differences caused by so-called strains. The quick takeaway is that all edibles made with THC isolate will hit the same, according to dose. You are welcome, and sorry to all the brands I just pissed off by saying so. I am also happy to be proven wrong on this point, but I’ve asked, like, at least 5 chemists at this point, who all say the same thing.

Thank you for being here! Until next time. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.