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The Impact of the NCAA’s Decision to Unban Cannabis

the impact of the ncaa's decision to remove the ban on cannabis

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has said that it plans to remove cannabis from the list of prohibited substances. That means that college athletes who are subject to drug testing may have much less to worry about.

The recommendation came from the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports. The Committee issued a press release on September 22, 2023, stating a number of reasons why they plan to remove cannabis from the list of banned substances.

What Drugs Are NCAA Athletes Currently Tested For?

The goal of the NCAA drug-testing program is to provide education and protect student-athletes who play without enhancement drugs. Both the NCAA and schools routinely conduct drug tests for events at all levels (not just NCAA championship events).

Currently, the National Collegiate Athletic Association tests for the following substances:

  • Steroids.
  • Peptide Hormones.
  • Stimulants (including Ritalin and Adderall).
  • Hormone Masking Agents.
  • Diuretics.
  • Recreational Drugs (Schedule I and II Prohibited Substances).
  • Related Substances and Mimetics.
  • Beta-2 Agonists.
  • Alcohol and Beta Blockers (Gun Sports Only).

Drug testing started in the NCAA back in 1986, which is when testing at championship events began. In 1990, drug testing was expanded to all three NCAA divisions, with 90% testing at Division I, 65% testing at Division II, and 21% testing at Division III.

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Medical Exceptions Do Not Include Cannabis

College athletes are tested regularly by the NCAA and their own athletics departments. Interestingly, the NCAA has always allowed for exceptions to be granted. For example, student-athletes who have medical conditions may test positive for any of the substances listed above.

There is one exception to the medical exception rule; cannabis. The NCAA drug testing guidance states, “No medical exception review is available for substances in the class of cannabinoids.” It does not mention other Schedule I drugs.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on Cannabis and Sports

After the case of U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, the World Anti-Doping Agency received requests to remove cannabis and THC from the WADA Prohibited List. The agency renewed its commitment to keep cannabis as a disqualifying substance and has added Tramadol (a pain killer) as a prohibited substance starting in 2024.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Code. While the majority of states have legalized medical and recreational (adult-use) cannabis, the USADA rules remain unchanged. It is not clear what will happen if the NCAA Committee rules in favor of removing cannabis from the list of prohibited substances.

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What Happens When Student Athletes Fail Drug Testing?

The NCCA states that the purpose of the drug-testing program is to deter student-athletes from using any performance-enhancing drug, as it “impacts the eligibility of student-athletes who try to cheat by using banned substances.” Drug testing is one of the most important competitive safeguards.

If a student receives a positive test for a substance on the list of banned drugs, there are several consequences. Each student is required to sign a contract at the beginning of each school year agreeing to abstain from illegal substances.

Testing positive for drug use in collegiate athletics can result in:

  • Suspensions for part or whole of the season.
  • Mandatory testing of all team members.
  • Randomized mandatory retesting during the period of ineligibility for all controlled substances.

When a student tests positive for a substance on the banned drug list, they are required to be retested at an NCAA-designated facility. Students and schools can appeal a positive drug test when an athlete has tested positive or violated the NCAA drug-testing protocols, i.e., tampering with test results.

Why Does the NCAA Want to Remove Cannabis From the Banned Substances List?

The goal of the NCAA is to ensure that college athletics are fair. That means ensuring that performance-enhancing substances are kept out of competitive sports. The NCAA divisional governance bodies have determined that cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug.

The NCAA Committee recognizes that marijuana use can help with pain relief, mental health symptoms, and more. If this amendment is passed, students will not be required to present a medical cannabis card. Cannabis will simply be removed from the association’s banned drug list.



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