The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has a very strict policy when it comes to cannabis testing. The NCAA currently has a THC metabolite threshold of 15 ng/mL. To put that into perspective, Olympic athletes are held to a standard of 150 ng/mL. From 2013 until 2017 the threshold was just 5 ng/mL for NCAA athletes. According to the NCAA’s website, “NCAA conducts testing at its championships, and year round on campus in Division I and II programs.” All NCAA drug testing involves the collection of the athlete’s urine while under the direct visual supervision of another person.
The first failed test results in a loss of 50% of an athlete’s season in every sport that they participate in. A second failed test results in the athlete losing an entire year of their collegiate athletic career due to suspension. NCAA athletes are guilty until proven innocent, proven by the NCAA’s policy of considering a refusal to take a drug test or failure to show up for a drug test as being the same thing as an actual failed drug test. The NCAA policy does not distinguish cannabis from other ‘street drugs’ in its policy.
In addition to the NCAA’s drug testing policy, schools can also enact their own drug testing policies. A number of schools have instituted drug testing policies that are more progressive than the NCAA standard when it comes to cannabis. As described in a recent article by The Cannabist, universities in Oregon, Washington, and multiple schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference have taken a more sensible approach to their athletic cannabis testing policies. Georgia Tech is the latest university considering whether or not it should update its drug testing policy. Per the previously cited article from The Cannabist:
Georgia Tech’s substance-abuse policy has been in place since the 2012-13 academic year. Athletic director Todd Stansbury believes it’s time to take a look at it. He has the backing of his most prominent coaches, Paul Johnson and Josh Pastner. In examining Tech’s policy, which has a “three-strikes” component, the school is joining what he called a national trend.
Pastner said he is in favor of a different set of consequences for testing positive for marijuana vs. other substances, citing its prevalence on college campuses and legalization in certain states. He also proposed the removal of a strike if an athlete passes tests for a prolonged period.
“I don’t want our guys to be smoking marijuana, but I do think there’s opportunities to maybe have it not be as stringent,” he said.
The Uncle Cliffy team does not advocate for cannabis use for recreational purposes by people under the age of 21. However, we do believe in compassion and logic, and the current NCAA drug testing policy is way too stringent, and ultimately is harmful to college athletes. No college athlete that tests at 15 ng/mL of THC metabolites should ever be penalized, as that threshold does not prove that a player actually consumed cannabis. A study from 2015 found that someone who was simply around other people consuming cannabis could test as high as 50 ng/mL, even though they had never personally consumed cannabis themselves (secondhand smoke exposure).
It is not exactly a secret that cannabis is fairly common on college campuses in America. To say that an athlete should be taken out of competition for just being around cannabis is ludicrous, let alone for half of an entire season for the first offense. The NCAA policy, or even the most progressive cannabis testing policies at the individual university level for that matter, does not provide for exceptions for athletes that are 21 or over and have consumed cannabis in a legal state (of which there are 8 now, plus Washington D.C.). The policies also do not allow exceptions for players who are registered medical cannabis patients in their home state, which is not common for young adult athletes, but a policy should still accommodate for those rare situations where medical cannabis at that age is warranted and approved by a medical doctor.
Cannabis can stay in a person’s system for as long as 100 days. A college athlete could be home, or visiting a legal state, consume cannabis out of season in a legal setting, yet still fail the NCAA’s and/or university’s drug test because they still had THC metabolites in their system. That makes no sense. The Uncle Cliffy team fully appreciates the seriousness of the situation, and that what’s best for college athlete’s health and safety is paramount. But that’s exactly why we advocate for reform in college athletics.
If a college athlete over the age of 21 wants to make the safer choice and consume legal cannabis rather than alcohol, they should be allowed to do so. Also, if a player benefits from using legal medical cannabis instead of more harmful pharmaceutical drugs, college drug testing policies should allow it. If a college athlete has a low enough THC metabolite level in their bodily fluids to compete in the Olympics, then surely they should be able to compete in college sports. A drug testing policy that falls short of that is a policy based more on outdated political views than it is on science and compassion. #FreeThePlant