Sha’Carri Richardson’s Story Shows Us Drug Testing Is a Harmful Drug War Tactic

Right now, Sha’Carri Richardson should be running toward her Olympic dream, but she’s not because of a harmful drug war practice: drug testing.

In June 2021, Richardson made headlines as one of the fastest women in the United States with her 100-meter sprint performance in the U.S. Olympic Trials. Less than two weeks later, she tested positive for THC, received a one-month suspension from competition, and was later excluded from the U.S. Olympic Team.

While many racial justice and policy advocates were outraged by how Richardson’s positive marijuana test was handled, her experience was just the most visible instance of a deeply rooted practice that has harmed countless people for decades.

For the past 35 years, drug testing has been an essential, yet largely under-examined, pillar of the “war on drugs.” Drug testing was widely adopted following the Drug-Free Workplace Act in 1988 under the false pretense of making workplaces safer and “drug-free.” In reality, these tests do nothing to show current impairment and are used as grounds for termination. They are disproportionately used to deny care and to target, surveil and criminalize Black people.

Richardson’s case reveals a deeper truth — drug testing has become far too pervasive and normalized, even in situations where it is clear that it is not tied to performance or safety. For example, the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) has claimed that marijuana is banned primarily due to pressure from the White House, not because of concerns for athletes’ well-being or integrity in sports. But drug testing wasn’t always a part of our lives and we don’t have to continue to accept it now.

People should never be drug tested for any drug, for any reason, that can lead to punitive consequences, regardless of which drugs they use and why they use them. Even drug testing for safety-sensitive positions, like those involving machine operating or medical procedures, cannot detect on-the-job impairment. Workplace accidents are often associated with stress, fatigue and illness rather than with drug use, and alternative assessment methods, including ongoing performance evaluations or performance-based tests, would more accurately and ethically measure current impairment.

We should channel the outrage we feel about Richardson’s punitive treatment toward the institutions that subject many people to this kind of draconian surveillance every day.

Take the public benefits system, for example. Applicants to the federally established Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are targeted by testing, whether they use drugs or not. Thirteen states authorize drug testing of TANF recipients. In most of those states, a positive drug test means sanctions and losing benefits altogether. These drug testing policies most acutely target Black people, who are disproportionately likely to be sanctioned and disproportionately poor. The impact of these sanctions? Increased risk of hunger, eviction and homelessness, utility shut-off and inadequate health care.

Within the family regulation system (commonly referred to as the “child welfare system”), many doctors routinely drug test pregnant people and newborns, often without verbal or written consent. Although a drug test cannot indicate how much of a drug someone has used, whether someone is currently impaired or under the influence, or whether any harm has stemmed from that use, a positive drug test can lead to a newborn child being ripped from their parents’ arms despite no evidence of harm to the child. Who are the primary targets of pre- and post-natal drug testing? Black women and their newborns, who by one estimate are 1.5 times more likely to be drug tested than non-Black women. Meanwhile, favorable media representations abound of white middle-class and wealthy parents using marijuana.

The selective use of drug testing in contexts that disproportionately target Black people, particularly poor Black people, while white people openly admit to using marijuana and sing its many benefits, highlights the extreme double standard around drugs, where some of us are trusted to use responsibly and others are portrayed as deviant rulebreakers. People of all races use drugs at similar rates, but enforcement in these areas parallels all tools of the drug war — it’s never about the drug. It’s about the perceived user.

Has drug testing achieved any of the purported goals of reducing drug-related accidents and harm? No, because, as noted earlier, drug testing only detects past use and not current impairment.

Has it decreased overdose deaths? No, criminalization and drug prohibition haven’t made us safer and have instead produced generational trauma and devastation and have fueled an overdose crisis.

Has it connected people with services? No, surveillance and the threat of punishment deter people from seeking care and block people from much-needed nutritional, financial and medical support.

People don’t “fail” drug tests. Drug testing fails us.

We should not accept that the systems that are meant to provide support — like health care and public benefits — are denying care based on drug use and dictating what we can and cannot put into our bodies. This is how insidious the drug war is: It can be used to deny jobs, tear apart families and block public benefits in a time of need.

A different world is possible, and people who use drugs are already envisioning it. Ending drug testing would disrupt the broader web of drug war surveillance, getting us closer to that future: one where we can all be open about our drug use; where people can choose to use drugs for a multitude of reasons, including pleasure; where Black people, people of color and other marginalized people aren’t targeted and punished for real or suspected drug use; where people can access the supports they desire without fear; and where the drug war, in all its forms, is abolished.