When Gonzaga and Oregon advanced to the Final Four last month, it marked the first appearance of two teams from the Pacific time zone in the NCAA’s semifinal round. The geographic proximity of the squads wasn’t the only novelty in this year’s tournament, though; both squads hail from home states known for their liberal stance on marijuana use.
Although the teams train in states where recreational marijuana use is legal, a positive test for the drug before any championship game would have ensured a player’s immediate suspension for half a season. According to a 2014 survey of NCAA member institutions, 21.9 percent of athletes reported using marijuana during the previous 12 months. Under the NCAA’s current system of drug testing, athletes are only tested for recreational drug use at the championship level and for bowl games in football. Marijuana use is treated the same as the use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids: punitively.
It’s clear that marijuana use is becoming more accepted on a national level, as the number of Americans who favor legalization has nearly doubled in the last decade. It falls on the NCAA — the leading regulatory institution of college athletics — to reconcile this reality with its current disciplinary policies against athletes who use marijuana. The NCAA has taken the initial steps to do so, including reducing the suspension period and acknowledging that street drugs like marijuana, unlike steroids, don’t improve athletes’ performances.
Steroids can make you a better athlete by increasing muscle mass and strength, but the only athletic feat you’ll achieve when high on marijuana is making it to the kitchen for that family-size bag of Doritos. The distinction between marijuana and steroids is obvious and the NCAA’s decision to make this its official position will prove essential in future policy decisions on marijuana use and testing.
In December 2014, the NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports concluded that it wasn’t logical for the NCAA to continue testing for a drug that didn’t improve the performance of athletes. Instead, it proposed a model in which universities have sole discretion of testing and sanctioning athletes who test positive for marijuana. The model also emphasized holistic treatment plans and the identification of players who may have addiction problems, but failed to garner enough support from NCAA governing members, due to a lack of specificity on how to implement the new measures.
As of now, no such plan has been approved, and players face suspension if they test positive for marijuana at the NCAA level. In order to ease the transition to institutionally set treatment methods, a cohesive set of guidelines and resources on how to deal with recreational drug use by athletes must be provided to schools. At the same time, if the NCAA really wants to abdicate control it must realize that its suggestions on effective intervention and deterrent measures will be treated for what they are — mere recommendations.
The standardization of testing and sanctioning procedures across the hundreds of member-institution campuses isn’t feasible, so universities must take the recommendations of the NCAA and mold them to fit their athletic program and campus culture, which can vary widely.
At Georgia, a player who tests positive for marijuana just once is automatically suspended for 10 percent of the season. The University of Oregon’s policy stands in sharp contrast; the possibility of riding the bench doesn’t come into play until an athlete records three positive tests. Similarly, the ability of universities to shoulder the cost of drug tests can vary greatly between teams with Big Ten budgets and smaller programs.
The NCAA should continue its policy of liberalization toward marijuana use by ending the testing of athletes at the championship level and enabling individual institutions to handle positive tests with a focus on meaningful interaction rather than immediate discipline.