Colleges Lessen Pot Penalties for Athletes

By McCarton Ackerman 01/04/16

The NCAA is drawing a line between recreational use and cheating.

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Many colleges are starting to loosen up on athletes who are caught using marijuana. New findings from an Associated Press investigation show that at least one-third of the Power Five conference schools are not punishing athletes who test positive for marijuana as severely as they did 10 years ago.

The investigation analyzed marijuana-related policies for 57 of the 65 schools in the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences, as well as the University of Notre Dame. They found that since 2005, nearly 40% of these schools have allowed an athlete to test positive for marijuana more times before facing disciplinary action or reducing penalties if they do get caught. Five schools in the Pac-12 division reduced suspensions for athletes who get caught with marijuana. At the University of Utah, a third failed test in 2005 meant dismissal from a team, but that has since been reduced to a 30-day suspension.

“It’s a moving target,” said Utah athletic director Chris Hill. “We have to find that balance between being too punitive and not punitive enough, and making sure that we help people that have a problem.”

In legal marijuana states like Oregon and Washington, using the drug is still forbidden for student athletes due to Pac-12 rules. However, the rules have also loosened for schools in these states. The University of Washington lowered punishments for a third positive test from a one-year suspension to a one-month suspension. Meanwhile, the University of Oregon doesn’t require players to sit out until a third positive marijuana test, while Oregon State won’t dismiss players until a fourth positive test, compared to three in 2005.

The NCAA has been drug testing for marijuana since the 1980s, but its medical staff is now saying that addressing issues with pot should be left to individual colleges and universities.

“The most important thing that I can’t emphasize enough is that as a society, we have to make a clear distinction between recreational drug use and cheating,” said NCAA medical chief Dr. Brian Hainline. “I really believe that they require two different approaches. One is more nuanced, and one is hard core.”

In the most recent survey of NCAA athletes, 19.3% admitted using marijuana or synthetic marijuana in the last 12 months, ranking second only to alcohol.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.