Overly Harsh NCAA Penalties For Cannabis Are Counterproductive

College athletes have been suspended throughout the years for many things, most of the time for good reason. Sometimes athletes are penalized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), sometimes by the university itself, and sometimes its both. Regulators and universities have a lot of discretion when it comes to handing out punishments. For some reason cannabis penalties are particularly harsh in many cases, which is unfortunate.

The latest example of this recently occurred at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Mike Bianchi wrote a fantastic article for the Orlando Sentinel in which he accurately captures how ridiculous the penalties are for two UCF football players that were each suspended for failing a drug test for cannabis leading up to a bowl game:

Two UCF football players get suspended for not one, not two, not three, but SIX games next year because they tested positive for marijuana.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is criminal — much more criminal than the decriminalized act of college students smoking a little weed.

Insanely, two promising young UCF football players — sophomore receiver Tristan Payton and redshirt freshman cornerback Nevelle Clark — have been suspended for half of next season because they tested positive for pot during NCAA-mandated drug tests taken in conjunction with the Knights’ Cure Bowl appearance.

In the case of Tristan Payton and Nevelle Clark, the punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime. The Uncle Cliffy team does not support cannabis use by people under the age of 21, unless it’s by a legally registered cannabis patient. These men are not over 21 years old, but they are adults. What good does it do to take away half of a season of their college careers? These young men have worked extremely hard to get to where they are at, and while they may have violated school policy, are their acts so egregious that they should be punished so harshly? Is there a more appropriate course of action, similar to other actions taken when no one was harmed and nothing was damaged by the students?

Some cannabis opponents may say ‘this teaches the athletes a lesson, and sends a message.’ These young men have caused no harm to anyone with their actions. Did they break a rule? Of course they did. But is the violation worth taking six games away from them, the experiences from which they will never get back? All because they consumed a substance that has been found to be 114 times safer than alcohol, a substance which is widely embraced for profit purposes by the university, and universities throughout the NCAA?

Had these young men consumed alcohol, would they have received such a harsh punishment? What exactly is the lesson here? If the lesson is to highlight the hypocrisy of cannabis prohibition, then these excessive penalties have definitely accomplished the objective. Had these players consumed any number of other substances, most of which are significantly more harmful than cannabis, they likely would have passed the drug test because it wouldn’t have stayed in the players’ system, but because cannabis can stay in a person’s system for up to 100 days, they failed.

The mandatory drug test that the players had to be subjected to leading into the bowl game detected cannabis in their system, but not how long the cannabis was in their system. Again, these young men didn’t do anything harmful to anyone around them, and the cannabis that was detected in their system could be the result of use from several weeks prior. A use that obviously didn’t cause any issues because it didn’t become a problem until the NCAA and the university made it a problem.

Punishing college athletes with overly harsh penalties for cannabis consumption does nothing to help the students. In many cases, it results in the athlete’s career being completely hindered, or even sadder, ended completely. Keep in mind, even after these players serve their suspensions and try to re-establish their playing careers, they will likely have to deal with the stigma that comes with being unfairly judged for cannabis use for years to come.

Cannabis prohibition in college sports is not based on science and logic, it’s based on politics and profit. If that were different athletes wouldn’t be disproportionately punished for recreational cannabis use compared to other violations, and there would be specific exemptions from penalties for players that use cannabis for medical purposes (which is legal now for registered patients in Florida by the way). If these players had opioids in their systems from painkillers administered by university staff, would we even be talking about this? Given the current opioid epidemic in Florida, what is the real message being sent by these overly harsh suspensions?