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Publish date: Dec 13, 2010

Competitive-safeguards panel maintains marijuana penalty

By Marta Lawrence

LOS ANGELES – The Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports has declined to recommend an extension of an exemption for the use of medicinal marijuana and has affirmed the full-season penalty for a positive marijuana test, pending further research. The current policy requires that the student-athlete sit out one full season of participation and lose a year of eligibility.

At its recent annual meeting, the group also added so-called “synthetic marijuana” drugs − including K2, Spice Gold, and other herbal incense products − to the banned-substances list. These drugs mimic tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which gives marijuana its potency.

The committee also clarified the existing ban for hCG to apply for men only since it is not performance-enhancing in women. Those changes to the list of NCAA-banned drug classes are scheduled to go into effect in August 2011, which will allow time to educate the membership.

NCAA research shows a recent increase in positive marijuana tests in all divisions, from 28 in 2008-09 to 71 in 2009-10. Student-athletes are subject to NCAA drug testing for marijuana only at NCAA championship events, although most institutional drug testing includes marijuana.

About 90 percent of Division I institutions have some type of regular-season testing. The severity of the penalty for a positive marijuana test, however, varies from institution to institution, and few require sitting an entire season.

Evidence shows that when a student-athlete misses an entire season of play, they are unlikely to return to their team. NCAA drug-testing results and reports from student-athlete reinstatement identify that of the 56 student-athletes who tested positive for marijuana between August 2007 and July 2009, only eight were reinstated after sitting out a year from their sport. Reinstatement numbers are not yet available for the current year.

Considering that, the committee looked at whether to recommend revising the penalty for a first positive marijuana test to half a season while including additional educational requirements and more stringent reinstatement testing. The group debated whether the more therapeutic combination of a withholding penalty, education and testing would increase the likelihood that the student-athlete would return to the team. 

Member hesitated on that approach, though, questioning whether the shorter withholding penalty would still be an adequate deterrent. After extensive discussion, the committee determined that the full-season penalty should be maintained.

Recent moves to legalize marijuana for use in treatment of chronic pain, poor appetite and other medical reasons prompted further examination of the NCAA’s medical-exception policy. In declining to allow a change in NCAA policy for an exemption for marijuana use for medical reasons, members of the committee, which includes physicians and athletic trainers, noted that the FDA does not currently regulate the drug.

There are also no uniform procedures for procuring a medical marijuana card, and the common delivery method (smoking) is crude and could put student-athletes at risk by exposing them to potentially harmful and toxic substances. Marijuana is not the standard of care, and there are approved and effective alternative treatments for those medical conditions.

A panel discussion on marijuana, K2 and other drug-use concerns will occur at the NCAA Convention in January.

The competitive-safeguards committee is an Association-wide group that makes recommendations on safety and drug-use concerns. It is composed of representatives from all three divisions and includes several medical experts.