NCAA Committee Recommends Cannabis for College Athletes

The college sports association recently recommended that cannabinoids be removed from its list of banned substances.

With cannabis being akin to alcohol in so many states, we’re seeing shifts in legislation that may soon affect college athletics.

On Sept. 22, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS) recommended new guidelines concerning drug testing of college athletes.

More specifically, the commission 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).

The biggest influence on this decision comes from a 2022 Summit on Cannabinoids in College Athletics that was held in December 2022. There, it was determined that cannabis (and the cannabinoids found within it) is not a performance-enhancing drug. Furthermore, the CSMAS also added the following to its recommendation:

  • To check the ineffectiveness of current drug testing.
  • The NCAA should only focus on performance-enhancing drugs.
  • The NCAA should address school education and support, rather than athletic penalties.

According to Committee Chair and Lead Sports Psychologist at Ohio State, James Houle, the current governing body is out-of-date. “We are recommending a big shift in the paradigm when it comes to cannabinoids,” Houle said. “We want to modernize the strategy with the most up-to-date research to give schools the best opportunity to support the health of student-athletes.”

The Debate of Cannabis as a Performance-Enhancing Substance

This isn’t the first time that cannabis has come into question due to its potential as a performance enhancer. In 2020, during the Tokyo Summer Olympics, Sha’Carri Richardson was barred from the 100-meter race due to testing positive for cannabis.

In this particular instance, there was the debate that cannabis gives you a “runner’s high”—effectively allowing you to compete better. Colorado journalist Josiah Hesse described the runner’s high as merely improved focused. “What I heard so often from athletes who use cannabis is the phrase ‘dialed in.’ They become myopically focused on the task at hand,” Hesse told The New York Times. “Any anxiety that they have about thousands or millions of people watching them, about their careers being at stake, or whether that injury from last year is going to hold up—it all melts away.”

Still, there is no scientific evidence suggesting that cannabis can make you bigger, stronger, or faster. In fact, the scientific research that has been conducted so far suggests that cannabis would decrease athletic performance.

Admittedly, even this evidence is slim. One of the most cited comes from an 2018 study where healthy participants smoked cannabis and then performed strength and exercise tests. Researchers found that cannabis increased heart rates, spiked blood pressure levels, and inhibited one’s ability to exercise.

However, such evidence hasn’t deterred the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which only recently updated its guidelines concerning cannabis. As of this time, THC is prohibited only in competitions and when urinary concentration exceeds 150 ng/mL.

Naturally, there should be more research into this topic to make such determinations. Unfortunately, this research is limited due to cannabis’s current standing as a Schedule I substance.

As we’ve seen continuously in headlines recently, this may change soon. The Department of Health and Human Services recently sent a recommendation to reschedule cannabis to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Beyond removing a number of barriers, this would allow for more research into cannabis-related topics.

Naturally, this could have an effect on the NCAA’s decision when it comes to college athletics. Ultimately, it would lead to a more modern-day approach to cannabis and how athletes determine to use it.

Beyond Athletics, Cannabis Criminalization May Also Be Affecting Academics

Alongside allowing athletes to consume cannabis, it’s worth briefly discussing the fact that most colleges also ban the use of the substance. In regards to recreation, this is understandable as colleges also ban the use of alcohol. However, there’s been much debate on the ethics of this in regard to the potential medical benefits for college athletes.

One of the biggest issues is that many colleges are subjected to federal law as long as they receive federal funding. Due to cannabis’s current position as a Schedule I substance, it comes as no surprise that even medical cannabis is banned.

The rescheduling of cannabis may help to change laws in this department, but ultimately, federal decriminalization is the ideal solution. It would ensure the safety of many federal institutions, including banks.

And this safety should be a top concern of universities. If students are struggling with a medical condition that cannabis can relieve, wouldn’t it be in a college’s interest to allow that relief in order to achieve top academic performance?

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