NCAA Division Proposes Removing Cannabis From Banned Substances List

Several changes are being implemented at the NCAA to reduce or end penalties for athletes who test positive for cannabinoids.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)—the organization that administers intercollegiate athletics in the U.S.—is making drastic changes to its drug policy for cannabis.

Changes were announced at the 2024 NCAA Convention that took place on Jan. 10-13, in Phoenix, Arizona. NCAA Division I proposed ending the practice of drug testing athletes for cannabinoids. The NCAA released a news release on Jan. 10, announcing that Division I is proposing removing cannabis from its drug-testing policy and will be voting on implementing the change shortly.

The White Mountain Independent reports that during the NCAA Convention on Jan. 11, a group of panelists discussed the recent cannabinoid drug testing policy updates and what needs to be done in order to incorporate those changes. NCAA Division I leaders decided cannabis is not in fact a performance-enhancing drug and that the organization’s drug testing policy should focus on other drugs instead.

“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,” said Pat Chun, athletics director at Washington State and chair of the Strategic Vision and Planning Committee. “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.”

The three panelists are members of the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS), which recommended in September 2023 that each NCAA division introduce and adopt legislation to remove cannabinoids from the association’s banned list.

In order for cannabis to be removed from the NCAA substance list, Divisions I, II, and III must introduce and adopt legislation.The CSMAS committee suggested that NCAA Divisions I, II, and III remove cannabinoids from the NCAA’s banned drug list. Beyond the obvious tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), this would also remove less common cannabinoids, including cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), and cannabinol (CBN).

Division I programs offer the highest level of competition between the NCAA’s three divisions and is the hardest division to get into and compete in.

The recommendation dates back to a December 2022 Summit on Cannabinoids in College Athletics, which concluded that “the consensus opinion that cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug and that a harm reduction approach to cannabis is best implemented at the school level,” the NCAA wrote in a June 16, 2023 news release.

In February 2022, CSMAS slowly recognized the need for change, raising the THC testing threshold from 35 to 150 nanograms per milliliter and proposing a new penalty structure that incorporated treatment and education plans.

“One of the things we know about college students specifically is that treatment and education strategies work better than penalties,” CSMAS member Nadine Mastroleo, an associate professor in the department of psychology and faculty athletics representative at New York’s Binghamton University. “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.”

According to a 2023 NCAA Student-Athlete Health and Wellness Study, 43% of college athletes are using marijuana in states where it is legal for recreational and medical use.

“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, the senior associate athletics director for sports medicine and the 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.

She continued, “How is this affecting your injury risk? How is this affecting your recovery? How is this affecting your performance? How is it affecting your sleep, your mental health? Pushing those agendas are going to be way more effective than randomly testing a group of individuals and then punishing them when they test positive.”

“So for those of you that will be getting emails from your student-athletes’ parents, we will hopefully be offering the information to you to help with that conversation,” Mastroleo said. “What we’re going to create ideally will be a really good toolkit of opportunities to really help with dispelling myths and also letting them know that we are out there for the athletes. Will we help everybody walk away from it? No, but I mean, how many of us can actually make everybody happy?”

A vote is scheduled to formally implement the drug testing policy change for Division I colleges is expected in June.

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