Punishment for cocaine use while playing sport does not fit the crime

Sean Ingle
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Peru’s Paolo Guerrero is trying to overturn a drugs ban so he can appear in the World Cup.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Mariana Bazo/Reuters</span>
Peru’s Paolo Guerrero is trying to overturn a drugs ban so he can appear in the World Cup. Photograph: Mariana Bazo/Reuters

Warrior by name, warrior by nature but three weeks before the World Cup Peru’s all-time top scorer, Paolo Guerrero, is facing a battle he not only cannot win but arguably should not be fighting at all.

Until last week the 34-year-old thought he was off to Russia for his career swansong. Instead he is off to Switzerland to beg the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, for a reprieve after the court of arbitration for sport extended his ban for testing positive for cocaine from six to 14 months.

Sadly for Guerrero the meeting is the footballing equivalent of attempting a 50-yard scissor-kick after the ball has been deflated. No matter how audacious the effort the shot is unlikely to fly into the top corner – even though Cas accepts that Guerrero, who says he accidentally ingested cocaine in a tea, did not intend to enhance his performance.

Guererro’s case does at least shine a spotlight on the rules that govern sports people taking cocaine. No one disputes it is a horrible drug that should be on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list, given it wrecks people’s health and communities, or that a form of punishment should exist for those who take it. But the current rules have many in anti-doping circles shaking their heads. For a start, taking cocaine out of competition is not considered worthy of a ban by Wada. A footballer testing positive on a summer holiday, for instance, is likely to walk away with a get-out-of-jail-free card. Yet that same player testing positive after a match will face a ban of between 12 months and four years – as well as the eternal shame of being a branded a drug cheat. In my mind such people are not drug cheats – a term that should be saved for those who use banned substances to cheat. Rather they are drug takers.

There is, moreover, a second important point here: cocaine’s performance-enhancing qualities are questionable at best. One senior anti-doping figure told me: “The idea that someone would use a euphoric substance like cocaine in competition is nuts. Yes, there are science papers that explain how it is theoretically feasible to have a beneficial effect. But I am not familiar with a single case where an athlete has been proved to use cocaine in competition in order to get an advantage.”

There is a further twist in all this. Lawyers tell me that in the vast majority of cases, athletes don’t test positive for cocaine but for its metabolite benzoylecgonine, which lingers in the body after the drug is taken. What is happening is that athletes are taking the drug several days before the match, often on a night out – which wouldn’t usually incur a Wada sanction – yet because they have a tiny bit lurking in their system on a match day everything changes. This is exactly what happened to the Castleford rugby league player Zak Hardaker last September – he was banned for 14 months – and Dan Evans, the British tennis player, who was banned for one year after testing positive for cocaine last April.

Think about this too: we know UK Anti‑Doping tests amateurs – which means a budding cyclist or university rugby player could get a four-year ban for taking a line of cocaine. It seems excessive, especially when not enough is being done to catch elite athletes taking EPO and steroids.

How did we get into this mess? Most people say the problem is that Wada classifies cocaine as a “non‑specified” substance – like anabolic steroids and EPO – which carry a ban of between 12 months and four years, rather than a “specified” substance, such as marijuana or salbutamol, which can be used for both medicinal and doping purposes. Because cocaine is a non-specified substance, the minimum ban is a year unless an athlete can show he or she is not at fault for having it in the body.

This is easier said than done. Richard Gasquet managed it after persuading Cas that cocaine was present only due to him passionately kissing a woman who had taken cocaine at a nightclub. So did the West Brom and England footballer Jake Livermore, who was cleared after taking cocaine following the death of his son. But these are rare exceptions.

What needs to change? One expert I spoke to suggested that a maximum six-month ban for a first offence for cocaine along with a fine that would go into the pot to fight doping is a good start. Another pointed out it was time Wada’s rule for cannabis was adopted for cocaine. This would mean someone testing positive but proving it was used in a context unrelated to sport would be deemed to have acted without significant fault and would be likely to escape a ban.

But changing the law will not be easy when politicians are so afraid of the public deeming them to be soft on drugs. A year before the London Olympics Ukad asked for cocaine to be treated the same as cannabis and quickly found itself slapped down by politicians on all sides.

Perhaps, with Wada currently reviewing its code, there will be a change in the next year. However, as things stand, we have the farcical situation where a convicted drugs cheat such as the Mexican boxer Canelo Álvarez gets a six-month ban testing positive for clenbuterol in a sport where he could kill someone, while Guerrero looks like missing what should be the greatest moment of his career merely for sipping the wrong tea.

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