Sha’Carri Richardson recently ignited discussion about mental health among high-performance athletes, reports Yahoo Sports. The 21-year-old American sprinter and fan-favorite spoke out Friday about her recent positive drug test and use of marijuana to cope with the unexpected loss of her biological mother.

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  • The incident has sparked backlash on social media against U.S., world and Olympic sports committees who consider marijuana a performance-enhancing drug and prohibit its use during competition, The New York Times reported.
  • “I am human,” the 21-year-old track star said on Twitter Thursday before the official announcement.

What is the controversy over Sha’Carri Richardson?

On Friday, per Yahoo Sports, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that Richardson had tested positive for THC, “the primary psychoactive compound of cannabis” and marijuana following the U.S. Olympic track and field trials.

  • The positive test result erased Richardson’s qualification time for the women’s 100-meter sprint — her signature event — and disqualified her from running in the Tokyo Olympics, reported the Deseret News.
  • Richardson is now facing a one-month suspension from competition, the Deseret News reported.

Richardson confirmed that she ingested marijuana in the days before the Olympic trials competition, according to Yahoo Sports. The world-class sprinter said she used the drug as a way to cope with the unexpected loss of her biological mother.

  • “I apologize,” Richardson said to her family, fans and sponsors on Friday, per ESPN. “I apologize for the fact that I didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time.”
  • “We appreciate Sha’Carri’s honesty and accountability and will continue to support her through this time.” Nike, which has sponsored Richardson since 2019, said in a statement, according to ESPN writer Aaron Dodson.

What is the debate over marijuana and performance-enhancing drugs?

Richardson’s suspension has sparked online debates about whether marijuana should be considered a performance-enhancing drug, reported The Associated Press.

  • The Olympic trials were held in Eugene, Oregon, where marijuana is currently legal, Yahoo Sports reported.
  • The World Anti-Doping Agency considers cannabis a “substance of abuse.” According to Yahoo Sports, “all cannabis-based products except for cannabidiol, or CBD, are on (the World Anti-Doping Agency’s) 2021 prohibited list and banned ‘in-competition.’” 
  • The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the USA Track and Field all adhere to this code, reports Yahoo Sports.

Richardson is the third track athlete this year to accept a suspension related to marijuana use, according to the AP. The recent trend has led some to push for changing the restrictions. Specifically for Richardson, the debate about marijuana use has been linked to recent events that adversely affected her mental health, The New York Times reported.

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What has Sha’Carri said about her mental health and marijuana use?

Days before the Olympic trials, Richardson’s biological mother unexpectedly passed away, reported the Deseret News. When she spoke about the loss of her mother immediately after the trials, Richardson shared few details. But, she has since opened up more about the loss.

Richardson first found out about her mother’s passing in an interview with a reporter, “a complete stranger.” Hearing the news, “it sent me into a state of emotional panic,” Richardson said, per The New York Times.

  • News of the loss was “triggering” for Richardson and “definitely nerve-shocking,” she said via The New York Times.
  • Richardson said she used marijuana while “dealing with my mental health,” per Yahoo Sports. “I know what I did. I know what I’m supposed to do, (what) I’m allowed not to do and I still made that decision…Don’t judge me because I am human,” per a FloTrack tweet.
  • “I know that I can’t hide myself, so at least, in some type of way, I would just try to hide my pain,” she said per the AP.
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“We all have our different struggles, we all have our different things we deal with, but to put on a face and have to go out in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain,” Richardson said, ESPN reported.

  • “Who are you? Who am I to tell you how to cope when you’re dealing with a pain or you’re dealing with a struggle that you’ve never experienced before or that you never thought you’d have to deal with,” she said via ESPN. “Who am I to tell you how to cope? Who am I to tell you you’re wrong for hurting?”

Will they ‘Let her run’?

At least seven petitions have begun circulating on Twitter, all calling for Richardson to be reinstated on the Olympic team and allowed to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. One petition to “Reinstate Sha’Carri Richardson” has almost 15,000 signatures. Another petition to “Let Sha’Carri Run!” is nearing 100,000 signatures.

Richardson’s suspension ends before the relay races at the Tokyo Olympics. If named to Team USA, she could still compete as part of the relay team, reports Deseret News. This remains uncertain.