Cannabis in college athletics

As marijuana policies shift within pro sports leagues, could the NCAA be next?

The National Football League has adjusted its drug policy to no longer include suspensions following a positive test for marijuana. The change comes as part of the new collective bargaining agreement reached by the NFL Players Association and owners on March 14. 


With this change, the NFL joined a number of professional sports leagues that have begun to implement less restrictive policies on the usage of marijuana. As the stigma surrounding marijuana is lessened and perceptions continue to shift, the question becomes, could marijuana usage by college athletes be permitted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the future?


On December 12, 2019, Major League Baseball removed marijuana from its list of “drugs of abuse” and began treating it as it does alcohol. Players can no longer be randomly tested for marijuana unless they are in a treatment program. 


The National Hockey League currently tests for marijuana, but no punishment is given in the case of a positive result. If a player is found to have a “dangerously high level” of 9-delta tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), they will be evaluated by the player assistance program.


NBA players are submitted to four random drug tests during the regular season as part of their collective bargaining agreement. A first positive test results in the player entering a mandatory drug program. A second positive test leads to a $25,000 fine; a third will result in a five-game suspension. With the NFL’s adjustments to policy, the NBA now holds one of the most strict marijuana policies among professional leagues.


Consequences for a positive marijuana test have not been eradicated from professional sports, but the general shift across major sports leagues has been to increase the threshold resulting in a positive test while minimizing the consequences for a player who does submit a positive test.


As society has become gradually more tolerant of marijuana—27 states have decriminalized cannabis and 11 have legalized recreational use—and misconceptions surrounding the drug have diminished, the practical uses of marijuana have been considered with more sincerity and optimism than ever before.


Professional athletes have been advocating for looser drug policies for years now, with many pointing to the widespread misuse and abuse of opioids within professional sports as a reason for allowing marijuana usage as a safer alternative to prescription drugs. 


Nearly 70% of the approximately 67,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2018 involved an opioid, according to the Center for Disease Control. 


A 2013 survey on the nonmedical use of prescription opioids among adolescents who participate in competitive sports found those participating in high-injury sports had 50% higher odds of non-medical use of prescription opioids than those who did not participate in this type of sport.


While marijuana’s practical applications as a pain management drug continue to be considered, and while the U.S. attempts to address its opioid crisis, a conversation has begun surrounding whether cannabis usage should be allowed in college athletics. 


As it currently stands, marijuana is a banned substance under NCAA rules and players can be subjected to random drug tests at any point during or outside of their sport’s season. Alcohol is listed as a banned substance only for athletes participating in rifle sports.


That said, the NCAA has made adjustments to its marijuana policy in recent years. The THC testing threshold used for NCAA drug tests was increased in 2019, though the committee responsible for the decision stated this was done in an effort to prevent those who have inhaled cannabis via secondhand smoke from testing positive. 


Some have argued it doesn’t matter how frequently or in what manner the NCAA goes about testing its athletes, players who wish to use marijuana are going to do so no matter what.


“I don’t think the NCAA is handling it the correct way,” said Anthony Adams, a redshirt junior on the Portland State football team. “Because no matter how many drug tests or policies [there are] or whatever they’re going to do, guys are going to find ways to break the rules.”


When asked about marijuana usage by athletes at PSU, Adams said, “I don’t really know numbers for that stuff. But I know that it’s out there—prevalent.”


Many have pointed to the distinction of marijuana not being a performance-enhancing drug as a reason for it to be removed from the NCAA’s banned substance list. 


“The NCAA—when they come and drug test us—they do it for performance-enhancing drugs and not street drugs,” Adams said. “I think that’s completely fair because performance-enhancing drugs should not be tolerated at all, so I think what the NCAA does for that is completely correct.”


“But as far as street drugs, if they don’t enhance your performance on the field, then I don’t see the need to punish somebody because of that,” Adams said. “Ultimately, it’s taking away from their abilities on the field for some people. I don’t think there’s a need to be punished for that.”


Adams advocated for the power to be given to coaches when handling the response to a positive marijuana test, rather than allowing the NCAA to maintain complete authority.


“It should be up to the coaches and not the NCAA,” Adams said. “At the end of the day, the coaches are the ones who see the player every single day.” 


“If Player A tested positive and he’s still doing all the right things, getting good grades, going to class, going to practice, performing well and he tests positive, the coach [should have] the ability to be like, ‘Okay, this is no problem for this kid.’ But if Player B goes and tests positive and he’s not going to class and he’s not doing well and he’s not performing well, then the coach [should be able to] create consequences for him. But, I don’t see that happening in college sports. Ultimately, I think that’s what would be the best option.”


There are a number of questions that still need to be answered before a policy allowing marijuana usage could be implemented by the NCAA, but the conversation isn’t going away anytime soon. New information will continue to update and inform our perception of the drug and its practical applications within athletics.