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NCAA Considers Ending Cannabis Testing For College Athletes

NCAA Building with Pool in Front and Pot Plant Overlayed
Photo by Jay Denman


NCAA Considers Ending Cannabis Testing For College Athletes

Athletes, both professionals and those in college, are required to stay away from any kind of performance enhancing or recreational drugs. If they are caught in possession of or using the banned substances, they can face penalties such as suspensions from games, ineligibility to play their preferred sport or even the loss of their careers.

The National College Athletic Association (NCAA) initially implemented their drug-testing program back in 1986 and included non-performance enhancing substances such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin in the list of prohibited drugs. The program requires each Division I and Division II school to have at least one standardized drug test for its players and many schools decided to implement random drug tests throughout the year for athletes in most sports.

While testing for banned substances is standard for sports organizations, the cultural and political climate surrounding cannabis has been changing drastically – with calls for abolishing testing athletes for cannabis coming from leaders and students alike. Considering these new shifts on the horizon, especially on how the nation views recreational use versus medical use, should athletes still be required to adhere to these strict drug testing guidelines that the NCAA has put into place?

Mary Wilfert, the associate director of the NCAA’s Sports Science Institute, explains that the rules outside of the NCAA’s requirement can change from institution to institution.

“Our member schools can conduct their own testing programs and that is totally independent of NCAA policy or oversight because they don’t have to test. They can test for what they want, they can test for what they determine is important and they assign penalties as they see fit or whether or not it is an intervention or counseling or whatever,” Wilfert said.

Some of the major leaders of the NCAA think that it is time to make some changes in how the agency treats drug use, so long as it is not performance enhancing in any way.

Jimbo Fisher, football coach at Florida State University (FSU), recently gave an impassioned speech to reporters regarding star cornerback Greg Reid and his removal from FSU’s football program due to a traffic stop that led to his arrest. Reid was found to be in possession of a small amount of cannabis while driving, destroying his goals of joining the NFL after college.

Fisher, upset to see one of his best players be cut from the team because of cannabis, asked reporters a simple question when asked about his feelings about marijuana use: “What if somebody told everybody in this room that you can’t drink another beer or you’re going to get fired?”

According to NCAA research published on the matter, it was found that almost one-third of college athletes admit that they have consumed marijuana in some form in the last 12 months.

Wilfert explains that because of this, the main discussions regarding the drug testing policies for the NCAA are revolving around one central question: “Does it make sense for the NCAA, the national governing body, to test for recreational drug use that does not enhance athletic performance?”

Amongst these discussions, the NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports introduced a new proposal this past January that outlines a new drug testing policy that focuses less on issuing immediate punishments and more on education and rehabilitation for those who fail the required drug tests.

“In December of 2014, the committee determined that a best-practice approach would be for the NCAA to no longer test for marijuana in its championships-testing program — which is when we do test as far as the NCAA testing goes — and that it would make more sense for institutions to focus in on the deterrents and intervention at the local level,” Wilfert explains. “In other words, educational interventions, counseling, whatever approach made more sense on recreational drug use than a punitive approach, which is all the NCAA program does right now.”

This new policy could make incredible changes for a lot of college athletes and the schools they play for as well. For instance, while the NCAA takes care of the required drug tests they issue, schools are on their own for testing outside of this. For larger schools with bigger budgets, this could be nothing to worry about. But smaller schools that lack the funding for such tests may find it difficult to fund independent tests.

Junita Payne, an athletic trainer at the University of Tampa, explains that the school has to pay for all of the randomized drug tests that they conduct.

“The University of Tampa Athletic Department is in charge of scheduling and contracting the drug testing company that conducts the institutional drug testing,” Payne says. “The NCAA is in charge of the NCAA drug tests.  The NCAA drug test generally only happens once a year around championship sites, but is not limited to that, whereas the UT drug test occurs randomly throughout the year.”

At the moment, the NCAA is still undergoing discussions about how and when to implement the new drug testing system. The agency is moving towards the mentality of much of the nation: that cannabis is not the evil drug that it was once believed to be. These changes could mean brighter futures for young sports stars who just happen to also enjoy cannabis.

Should NCAA athletes be required to be drug tested for cannabis? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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