NCAA Panel Formally Recommends Removing Marijuana From Banned Substances List For College Athletes

September 24, 2023 ·

A National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) committee is formally recommending that its divisional governing bodies remove marijuana from the list of banned substances list for college athletes.

The NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports said on Friday that members met this week and decided to advise all three of the association’s governing bodies to introduce and enact legislation to stop testing and punishing players for cannabinoids.

This comes three months after the committee first signaled its interest is formalizing such a recommendation. In June, it said members would be soliciting additional input before potentially taking action in the fall.

The committee said the rationale behind the decision was multifaceted. Ending the cannabis ban 1) “acknowledges the ineffectiveness of existing policy (banning, testing and penalizing),” 2) affirms its belief that cannabis is not a “performance-enhancing drug” and 3) promotes the “importance of moving toward a harm-reduction strategy.”

“The timing of discussion and adoption of possible legislation is a decision that will be made by each of three NCAA divisional governance structures,” the panel said on Friday. “This recommendation is based on extensive study informed by industry and subject matter experts (including doctors, substance misuse experts and membership practitioners).”

“The recommendation aims to recenter student-athlete health while recognizing membership opinions and the shifting cultural and legal landscapes surrounding cannabinoids,” it added.

If the reform is adopted, it would build on a policy change that NCAA enacted last year to increase the THC threshold that constitutes a positive test for college athletes from 35 to 150 nanograms per milliliter, aligning the NCAA’s rules with that of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

“When making a decision on an important topic like this, we agree that the membership should have an opportunity to vote on the final outcome,” James Houle, committee chair and lead sport psychologist at Ohio State, said in a press release on Friday. “We are recommending a big shift in the paradigm when it comes to cannabinoids. We want to modernize the strategy with the most up-to-date research to give schools the best opportunity to support the health of student-athletes.”

The committee further recommended that, at the same time that governing bodies should remove marijuana and its constituents from the banned substances list, they should develop “a robust educational strategy to accompany a potential change to cannabinoid legislation.”

This development is part of a theme that’s emerged within professional athletic organizations amid the state-level marijuana legalization movement.

For example, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and its players union recently signed a collective bargaining agreement that removes marijuana from the league’s banned substances list and lays out rules allowing players to invest in and promote cannabis brands—with certain exceptions.

Earlier this year, Nevada sports regulators voted to send a proposed regulatory amendment to the governor that would formally protect athletes from being penalized over using or possessing marijuana in compliance with state law.

UFC announced in 2021 that they would no longer be punishing fighters over positive marijuana tests.

The National Football League’s (NFL) drug testing policy changed demonstrably in 2020 as part of a collective bargaining agreement.

NFL and its players union also announced in June that they are jointly awarding another round of funding to support independent research on the therapeutic benefits of CBD as a pain treatment alternative to opioids for players with concussions.

The New York Media Softball League (NYMSL)—which has teams representing The Wall Street Journal, High Times and BuzzFeed among its ranks—announced in July that it was launching a sponsorship deal with a Kentucky-based CBD company.

The idea behind the collaboration was inspired by moves by Major League Baseball (MLB) and certain teams like the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs that have also recently partnered with CBD businesses.

MLB itself announced its league-wide partnership with a popular CBD brand last year. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, one of the most recognizable hemp-derived CBD companies in the country, signed the deal with league to become the “Official CBD of MLB.”

While advocates have welcomed these changes, there’s been criticism of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) over its ongoing cannabis ban. A panel within the agency said in an editorial last month that marijuana use by athletes violates the “spirit of sport,” making them unfit role models whose potential impairment could put others at risk.

Advocates strongly urged WADA to enact a reform after U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from participating in Olympics events due to a positive THC test in 2021.

Following that suspension, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said that the international rules on marijuana “must change,” the White House and President Joe Biden himself signaled that it was time for new policies and congressional lawmakers amplified that message. (Full Story)

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