NCAA Eases Rules, Testing for Cannabis Use Among College Athletes

The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) officially raises its THC threshold from 35 to 150, changing the game for athletes.
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The NCAA said last week that it is relaxing its policy for cannabis testing among collegiate athletes in the United States, while also recommending that it ease penalties for a positive test. 

The decision came after a meeting on February 22 and 23 of the NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, (CSMAS) which raised the amount of THC required to constitute a positive test from 35 to 150 nanograms per milliliter.

The NCAA said that the new THC threshold for its student athletes was established by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the global agency that oversees drug testing in athletics. 

“Reconsidering the NCAA approach to cannabis testing and management is consistent with feedback from membership on how to better support and educate student-athletes in a society with rapidly evolving public health and cultural views regarding cannabis use,” Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, said in a press release on Friday

“Marijuana is not considered a performance-enhancing substance, but it remains important for member schools to engage student-athletes regarding substance use prevention and provide management and support when appropriate.”

The policy shift by the NCAA, which comprises more than 1,000 schools in the U.S. spanning three different divisions, is the latest example of American sports reckoning with the changing attitudes and laws in the country.

With a majority of states having legalized cannabis in some form, domestic sporting leagues like the NBA and NFL have also updated their drug testing rules. And the incongruity between the changing laws and the drug testing policies in the athletic world drew attention last summer, when U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for cannabis.

In addition to raising the THC threshold, CSMAS also recommended that all three divisions of the NCAA change the penalties for a positive cannabis test. (The NCAA said that such drug testing penalties “are legislated under NCAA bylaws, so each division will be required to separately adopt new legislation before changes are made.”)

According to the Associated Press, under the previous penalty structure “one positive test for marijuana would mean an NCAA athlete would immediately have to miss 50 percent of a regular season and a second would mean an athlete would sit out for ‘the equivalent of one season … of regular-season competition.’”

The NCAA said that under the new structure, the first positive test would result in “no loss of eligibility if the school provides a management plan and education for the student-athlete.” A second positive test would likewise result in no loss of eligibility “if the school provides additional management and education and confirms the student-athlete was compliant with the original management and education plan,” although “the student-athlete must be withheld from 25 percent of regular-season contests if they were not compliant with the original management and education plan.”

A third positive test would not result in a loss of eligibility either “if the school provides additional management and education and confirms the student-athlete was compliant with the previous two treatment and education plans,” but the “the student-athlete must be withheld from 50 percent of regular-season contests if they were not compliant with the previous management and education plan.”

“These adjustments to the NCAA drug testing program were approved after careful consideration and extensive discussion of the recommendations made by the Drug Testing Subcommittee, which has been meeting since last fall,” said Dr. Stephanie Chu, chair of the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports. 

“The updated cannabis testing policies create a clear pathway for student-athletes to participate in education and management programs specific to their needs at the campus level.”

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