Rethinking Marijuana

August 9, 2018

The legalization of recreational marijuana has become a hot topic not only in general society, but also in the world of sports. As its legality grows, colleges and universities have adjusted their rules to align with this new reality.

For instance, according to an article for CBS Sports, the NCAA made modifications four years ago, shortening the penalty for a positive marijuana test from a year-long suspension to six months.

“I think in five years, [marijuana testing] is going to be gone,” said Fort Worth, Texas-based Attorney Christian Dennie, who has helped negotiate, challenge, and write drug policy at professional and amateur athletic levels.

Even with shifting views around the drug, marijuana is still banned by the NCAA. However, they only test for it at championship events. In every other case, it is the job of the school or conference to administer in-season testing.

Many schools have loosened the penalties for using marijuana, including Rutgers University. While its rules and monitoring for performance-enhancing drugs became stricter in 2016, marijuana use has become less of an issue. Athletes have three strikes (for failed drug tests) before possibly facing game suspensions. After the fifth failed test, they are taken off the team.

“That is something that works for us,” explained Rutgers’ Compliance Director Paul Perrier. “Our athletic director has a very liberal [stance] to marijuana because he feels like New Jersey is going to legalize it."

Other schools have followed suit in some degree.

“When the NCAA changed their sanction on marijuana, it seemed like everybody was at three strikes [before dismissal], then everybody kind of split out their marijuana sanctions to four, maybe five,” said Erika Kuhr, Senior Director for the National Center for Drug Free Sport, which oversees drug testing for the NCAA, NFL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, and PGA. “I don’t know if there is anybody out there above five. But it doesn’t mean they’re not out there.”

Part of the reasoning for this change was the conclusion that the use of marijuana does not work the same as a performance-enhancing drug. Therefore, it is not considered cheating to use it. In fact, there might be more to say about the medicinal uses of the drug rather than the negative effects.

For example, two years ago, former Colorado State University running back Treyous Jerrells told The Coloradoan that he was unable to play without smoking weed, as he battled pain from a surgically repaired knee. His rationale? That marijuana couldn’t be worse than how others were fighting their pain.

“I practiced under the influence,” he told the newspaper. “I played games under the influence. This is my medicine. I’ve seen players at CSU pop five, 10 ibuprofens before practice. Daily. You think that’s good? Over the course of two, three years, that’s eating your liver away. I’m not ashamed of what I did.”

The NCAA’s Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline, MD, says experts should look further into the issue of using marijuana for aid.

"These are questions we really have to answer,” he said. “Like with concussions and mental health, we're not waiting 35 years."

Some people might worry that the legalization of marijuana would increase the instances of use among college students and athletes. However, the opposite has been found to be true. While Colorado legalized recreational marijuana for those 21 and older in 2014, universities like Colorado State have not seen a significant change in their student body’s drug use. In reality, the school saw an initial decrease in positive tests after the law changed. Over the past two years, positive tests have increased, predominantly among students who are under the age of 18.

“A lot of people thought we would get an increase in recruits because marijuana was legal in Colorado,” said Colorado State Compliance Director Shalini Shanker. “All of a sudden we’re going to get these five-star recruits who want to come smoke weed. That has not been the case.”

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