By Phillip Smith
The NCAA is reducing the threshold for a positive result for marijuana, meaning that student athletes who smoke pot are more likely to be caught. At the same time, however, it is recommending reducing the penalty for those testing positive for marijuana.
The testing threshold will drop from 15 nanograms per milliliter of blood to five nanograms (the same standard that is considered per se evidence of impairment under Washington state's new marijuana DUID law) in order to "more accurately identify usage among student athletes," the group's Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sport announced Friday.
The lower marijuana threshold will go into effect on August 1 and would require a season-long suspension from athletic activities, the same penalty for those athletes caught using performance-enhancing drugs. The CSMAS is recommending that the penalty for positive marijuana tests be lowered to a half-season suspension because it doesn't consider the herb to be a performance-enhancing drug, but that change won't come into effect until August 2014.
That means the NCAA could see a spike in one-year suspensions for pot as the new, tighter threshold goes into effect, but the move to reduce penalties lags behind.
CSMAS explained that marijuana had not been part of athletic drug testing until after some Olympic snow boarders tested positive for it after the 1998 games and embarrassed Olympic officials:
"At that time, there was no penalty for a positive marijuana test, but many in the Olympic family were embarrassed about the test results. This led to placing marijuana on the in-competition list of banned drugs," the panel said on its web site. "Many scientists and clinicians have debated whether marijuana is truly performance enhancing. Indeed, John Fahey, the president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, recently acknowledged that many scientists believe that the current marijuana criteria need to be amended, and he further stated that this matter will be considered in a review process."
If marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug, why should athletes be penalized for using it? CSMAS is glad you asked:
"The World Anti-Doping Agency lists three reasons for drug testing in sport: (1) to prevent cheating through the use of performance-enhancing substances and methods; (2) to deter athletes from ingesting substances that may harm the athlete's health; and (3) to deter athletes from ingesting substances or engaging in doping methods that are contrary to the spirit of sport," the group explained. "Whereas the CSMAS rightly focused on the fact that marijuana and other street drugs are not performance enhancing, the committee also recognizes that the universe of sport is special, and the student-athlete is obliged to embrace the spirit of sport. We do not believe that student-athletes should be ingesting marijuana and other street drugs, and we believe that a combination of penalties coupled with behavioral intervention is the most balanced approach to this issue."
And does this mean an athlete who smoked a joint a month before the big bowl game could test positive for marijuana and face penalties from the NCAA?
"Yes," said CSMAS.