The NCAA is grappling with how to treat college athletes' use of marijuana — a popular drug that presents a puzzle because it is considered unsafe by the U.S. government but is not a performance enhancer and has been decriminalized by a number of states.
Studies and anecdotal evidence show that marijuana use has risen among college athletes — and other young Americans — in recent years as the drug has become more publicly accepted. In particular, the NCAA's chief medical officer, Brian Hainline, has expressed concern about a perceived steep rise in the popularity of synthetic marijuana, a combination of natural herbs and synthetic chemicals.
Hoping to deter marijuana use, the NCAA is lowering the threshold — effective Aug. 1 — for what determines a positive test. The threshold is being reduced from 15 to five nanograms per milliliter. The change will make it easier to detect marijuana usage based on urine testing.
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But the NCAA's marijuana policy is sensitive. Because the organization doesn't regard it as a performance-enhancing drug, some observers wonder why so many schools place marijuana into the same category as other drugs. "The only performance enhancement claim I've heard is that it allows athletes to relax," said Dr. Charles Yesalis, a retired Penn State professor of health policy and an expert on athletes' drug use.
Mississippi basketball player Marshall Henderson and North Carolina basketball player P.J. Hairston are among the recent players to be publicly linked to the drug by police. Maryland is among the many schools that has had issues with athletes and marijuana, according to multiple sources. The school won't say how many athletes have tested positive in recent years.
The NCAA's threshold change comes as the perception of marijuana in the United States continues to shift. Citizens in Washington state and Colorado have voted to permit marijuana's limited recreational use. Many more states allow the drug's use for medical purposes. Even though marijuana is now legal in some states, the NCAA still tests for it partly because the drug "is illegal from the federal government perspective, and it is still not clear how the state-federal dialogue will play out," Hainline said on the NCAA's website.
But NCAA officials say the organization does not consider marijuana a performance-boosting substance whose usage is synonymous with cheating. For that reason, the NCAA's Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports said in January that it has recommended that the penalty for positive marijuana tests be reduced from a full-season suspension to a half-season suspension.
The committee recommendation arose because it wanted "to approach non-performance-enhancing drug use in a different way than we approach performance-enhancing drug use," said Mary Wilfert, the NCAA's associate director of health and safety.
If approved by NCAA members, the scaled-down penalty would take effect in August 2014.
But the NCAA still considers marijuana use risky behavior. So do most schools. A 2009 NCAA study of college athletes' substance abuse habits showed marijuana use on the rise. A similar study is due out this fall.
"Health and safety issues are associated with it," Wilfert said of marijuana. "If you have student-athletes who perceive our testing is not rigorous, that undermines the credibility of our testing program."
The NCAA conducts tests for marijuana during championship events and postseason bowls. The NCAA's program is operated by the National Center for Drug Free Sport, a Kansas City-based company.
In addition, schools do their own testing for marijuana and other drugs. Many conduct hundreds of tests a year, spending tens of thousands of dollars or more.
Using public records requests and interviews with school officials, The Baltimore Sun surveyed Maryland and nearly a dozen other public schools in the Terps' current league, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and its future league, the Big Ten. The goal was to examine the schools' marijuana policies. Maryland joins the Big Ten in July 2014.
Maryland keeps all positive marijuana tests confidential. Maryland also tests for steroids, amphetamines and other drugs. School officials declined to say how many drug tests it conducted last year or how many positive tests were found. There were 882 drug tests conducted in 2006 — the last year for which figures were publicly available — and 16 failed tests, according to a document obtained under a public records request.
At Maryland, an initial positive test for any prohibited drug triggers mandatory counseling. Terps athletes are tested randomly and in cases where the school finds "reasonable suspicion."
A second offense triggers a two-week suspension from all team activities, and a third violation carries a one-year suspension.
Like Maryland, most universities seek to strike a balance between deterrence and counseling.
Purdue is an example. In response to a public-records request, Purdue provided case studies of how it deals with athletes' marijuana use.
In Purdue's first hypothetical scenario, an athlete tests positive for marijuana during a random test, telling the school they used the drug for anxiety and insomnia. The offender undergoes increased random testing and meets with a psychologist.
In Purdue's second scenario, a baseball player tests positive for a second time and receives additional counseling, a mandatory meeting at a rehabilitation center, and 10 hours of community service. "Coach may impose stricter sanctions upon you at any point in the testing process," the sample letter says. A third positive test results in a suspension for 10 percent of the season, among other requirements.
Other schools impose sanctions earlier in the process. At Virginia Tech, all positive tests for any prohibited drug result in loss of playing time. A Virginia Tech athlete is suspended for one-tenth of the season for an initial marijuana violation.
At Indiana, counseling is mandatory for an initial positive drug test for marijuana or another banned drug. A second violation results in a suspension of varying games — one game for football players and three games for men's and women's basketball players.
Congressional committees have looked closely at the drug testing policies of the NFL and major league baseball, but not at NCAA drug testing in the same way.
"The NCAA has really been given a free pass by Congress," Yesalis said.
Yesalis agreed with the NCAA that marijuana does not seem to enhance athletic performance, and he wondered about the need for testing.
The NCAA's "argument is they're concerned about their [athletes'] health," he said. "Well then, they should test all the students — and some professors."