The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has issued new guidelines for meldonium, the recently banned blood-circulation drug for which Maria Sharapova tested positive.
Sharapova is far from alone, with the agency saying that 172 athletes have tested positive for the drug since it became banned at the beginning of the year.
However, the agency also said that there is a lack of data on the length of time the substance takes to leave the body. While general analysis has suggested it only takes days, the manufacturer said in an interview that it could take months.
Dr. Tom Bassindale, an anti-doping scientist interviewed by USA Today, said that while the anticipated length of time would be within "a few days of it being stopped," there is also "a possibility that some drugs do accumulate over long-term use and take a lot longer."
Based on this state of affairs, WADA has said that, for athletes who sufficiently establish that they took the substance before this year, a tribunal could find that no fault or negligence was committed by the athlete. This would mean no sanction, though there would still be a disqualification in events in which the athlete tested positive.
More specifically, it said that for those who tested positive for less than 1 mcg of the substance before March 1, a finding of no fault or negligence could be made by a tribunal. For those who tested positive between 1-15 mcg of the substance up to March 1, or for less than 1 mcg following March 1, a provisional suspension could be lifted.
The process should proceed as usual for those who acknowledge that they took the substance this year, or if there are indications that they took the substance this year, the agency said. Athletes can receive a ban of four years for a first offense, and are subject to adjustments based on intention and fault.
These guidelines were based on data suggesting that the substance shows up at levels of more than 10 mcg within the first three days of ingestion, followed by 2 mcg for the next few weeks, and less than that for a few months.
Subsequently, WADA also issued a clarification, repeating that the principle of strict liability still applied and athletes were responsible for any banned substances in their body.
However, it is tough to tell whether Sharapova will be affected by these changes. The Russian and her legal representatives have given general indication that she was taking the drug at the time she was tested, but the former No. 1 has not specified when she took it or what level showed up in her sample.
Sharapova tested positive at the Australian Open, which is in the first two months of the season. In a press conference announcing the positive test, she said she has taken the drug for many years for health reasons and did not know it had become banned at the beginning of this season. She said she takes “full responsibility," and had received—but not read—an email from WADA announcing the changes.
“The notice underscores why so many legitimate questions have been raised concerning WADA's process in banning meldonium, as well as the manner in which they notified players,” a statement from John Haggerty, who is representing the Russian, said. “This notice should have been widely distributed in 2015, when it would have made a difference in the lives of many athletes."