The NCAA, in an attempt to adjust its testing practices to modern science, has adjusted the threshold for which a positive marijuana test is considered an adverse finding at their NCAA Championship meets.
Specifically, they have lowered the level from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 5 nanograms per milliliter, meaning that only one-third the level of marijuana in an athlete’s urine would trigger a positive test.
The rationale from the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS), who voted on the measure in December, is that current testing technology had advanced to the point to warrant lowering the threshold. The concern of having a threshold above zero is the need to accurately identify intentional use of marijuana without trapping those exposed to second-hand smoke.
Marijuana use and its danger, or lack thereof, is currently a very heated discussion in American society, as there is a strong movement to push for its legalization (and in many jurisdictions, that has happened, sort-of). While a discussion on that is outside the scope of this NCAA decision, what is within the scope is the NCAA’s belief that the use of street drugs violates WADA’s goal of maintaining the sanctity of the sport.
“Marijuana is illegal from the federal government perspective, and it is still not clear how the state-federal dialogue will play out, NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline said of the decision. “That being said, the World Anti-Doping Agency lists three reasons for drug testing in sport: (1) to prevent cheating through the use of performance-enhancing substances and methods; (2) to deter athletes from ingesting substances that may harm the athlete’s health; and (3) to deter athletes from ingesting substances or engaging in doping methods that are contrary to the spirit of sport. Whereas the CSMAS rightly focused on the fact that marijuana and other street drugs are not performance enhancing, the committee also recognizes that the universe of sport is special, and the student-athlete is obliged to embrace the spirit of sport. We do not believe that student-athletes should be ingesting marijuana and other street drugs, and we believe that a combination of penalties coupled with behavioral intervention is the most balanced approach to this issue.”
Hainline also discussed that the consensus reached by the CSMAS is that marijuana is not performance enhancing, which is a key to future potential regulation on the topic in sport.
The penalty for the first positive test in the NCAA, which only tests directly at its championship and bowl events, is a one-year suspension plus a loss of one year of eligibility. A second test results in a second year if it is a street drug, or a permanent ban if it is a PED. NCAA member institutions frequently conduct their own tests, however; while the results of these tests are usually unreleased by law, anecdotal evidence would speak that it’s not uncommon for college athletes to test positive, with different levels of punishment by their specific programs, depending on the circumstances.
The threshold for WADA (aka, USA Swimming events) remains at 15 nanograms per milliliter. The NCAA’s official guideline is that marijuana can show in a person’s urinalysis up to a month after usage, sometimes more for a chronic user. There is at least one reported case of a collegiate diver, former USC All-American Harrison Jones, testing positive in a USADA case and getting suspended
Hainline answered a number of questions about marijuana usage very frankly; if you have further interest in the topic, we encourage you to read that Q & A here. Those on either side of the issue should be able to appreciate Hainline’s and the NCAA’s honesty on the issue.