A new collegiate athletics proposal would remove marijuana from the list of substances included in drug screenings for National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship competitions, with officials set to vote on the matter in June. Proponents say the approach is consistent with designing rules to focus on reducing harm rather than punishing student athletes.
The plan would build on a 2022 change that increased the allowable THC threshold for college athletes, aligning NCAA’s rules with those of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
The latest proposal would effectively treat marijuana more like alcohol. While NCAA doesn’t intend for the change to promote cannabis use, the substance isn’t believed to give competitors an unfair advantage in sport.
“Cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug, and we determined that the drug testing conducted at NCAA championships should focus on substances that impact competitive outcomes,” Pat Chun, athletics director at Washington State and chair of the Strategic Vision and Planning Committee, said in a statement last week. “To be clear, this does not mean that NCAA members condone or promote use of cannabinoids. However, rather than focus on testing and subsequently penalizing student-athletes who use cannabis, NCAA efforts should focus on a harm reduction strategy, similar to substances like alcohol.”
Division I Council introduces proposals into legislative cycle, including one that would remove cannabinoids from drug testing at championships.https://t.co/XWd7j9dn7d
— NCAA News (@NCAA_PR) January 11, 2024
If adopted, the change would take effect with the new academic year, in August. It would apply retroactively “to any penalty associated with a previous positive test,” the body said in an announcement.
The policy proposal was introduced last week by NCAA’s Division I Council, one of the association’s governing bodies. A vote to formally adopt the change for Division I schools is expected in June, while the director of sports medicine at NCAA’s Sports Science Institute has said it could take longer to pass similar legislation in Divisions I and II.
The latest development follows a preliminary recommendation last June from NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS) that each of the organization’s three governing bodies remove marijuana from the banned substances list.
At a cannabinoid policy panel at an NCAA meeting in Phoenix last week, members of that committee said the goal of testing should be identifying and treating problem drug use among individual athletes rather than disqualifying them from competition for positive tests.
“One of the things we know about college students specifically is that treatment and education strategies work better than penalties,” said CSMAS member Nadine Mastroleo, a psychology professor and faculty athletics representative at New York’s Binghamton University, according to a report from Cronkite News. “The last piece of this is really testing within a campus or at the local level. That is the best approach to using and finding individuals who actually might have a problem and could really use some support to reduce their use and to recover from whatever problems they may be having from that.”
Historically, college athletes have been subject to testing during postseason play. Positive tests could mean an entire season of lost eligibility. Officials have said the changes are intended to focus more on problematic use than penalizing players for a single mistake.
“Harm-reduction interventions, meaning meeting individuals where they are, are likely to be more effective in reducing cannabis-related health consequences than abstinence-only approaches,” said CSMAS member Deena Casiero, head team physician at the University of Connecticut. “We know that randomly testing small groups of individuals at championships is not likely going to be as effective a deterrent as educating athletes about what this substance is actually doing to their bodies.
In formally recommending that shift last September, the NCAA committee said that ending the cannabis ban “acknowledges the ineffectiveness of existing policy (banning, testing and penalizing),” affirms the body’s belief that cannabis is not a “performance-enhancing drug” promotes the “importance of moving toward a harm-reduction strategy.”
“The timing of discussion and adoption of possible legislation is a decision that will be made by each of three NCAA divisional governance structures,” the panel said. “This recommendation is based on extensive study informed by industry and subject matter experts (including doctors, substance misuse experts and membership practitioners).”
Multiple sports organizations have moved to amend their marijuana testing policies for athletes amid the state legalization movement.
Last month, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) formally removed marijuana from its banned substances list, building on an earlier reform that limited THC-related penalties.
In June of last year, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and its players union signed a collective bargaining agreement that removed marijuana from the league’s banned substances list and laid out rules allowing players to invest in and promote cannabis brands in certain cases.
Nevada sports regulators also voted last year to send a proposed regulatory amendment to the governor that would protect athletes from being penalized over using or possessing marijuana in compliance with state law.
The National Football League’s (NFL) drug testing policy changed demonstrably in 2020, meanwhile, as part of a collective bargaining agreement.
NFL and its players union also announced last June that they would jointly award another round of funding to support independent research on the therapeutic benefits of CBD as a pain treatment alternative to opioids for players with concussions.
The New York Media Softball League (NYMSL)—which has teams representing The Wall Street Journal, High Times and BuzzFeed among its ranks—announced last July that it was launching a sponsorship deal with a Kentucky-based CBD company.
The idea behind the collaboration was inspired by moves by Major League Baseball (MLB) and certain teams like the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs that had also recently partnered with CBD businesses.
MLB itself announced a league-wide partnership with a popular CBD brand in 2022. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, one of the most recognizable hemp-derived CBD companies in the country, signed the deal with league to become the “Official CBD of MLB.”
While advocates have welcomed these changes, there’s been criticism of the World Anti-Doping Agency over its ongoing cannabis ban. Members of a panel within the agency said in an opinion piece in August that marijuana use by athletes violates the “spirit of sport,” making them unfit role models whose potential impairment could put others at risk.
Advocates strongly urged WADA to enact a reform after U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from participating in Olympics events due to a positive THC test in 2021.
Following that suspension, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said that the international rules on marijuana “must change,” the White House and President Joe Biden himself signaled that it was time for new policies and congressional lawmakers amplified that message.
The Biden White House described WNBA star Brittney Griner as “wrongfully detained” in Russia in 2022 after she pleaded guilty to unlawfully possessing cannabis vape cartridges in the country.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) wrote in an op-ed for Marijuana Moment last year: “If the NCAA is issuing a call for a reasonable, rational drug policy, can Congress be far behind?”