A key National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) panel last week recommended that cannabis be removed from the collegiate sports association’s list of banned substances after finding that marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug. The decision from the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS), which was announced on June 14, could effectively end the ban on cannabis use by student-athletes, who must currently undergo regular screenings for the presence of cannabis and other banned substances.
The recommendation from the CSMAS does not go into effect immediately. Instead, the proposal is subject to approval by the governing bodies of the NCAA’s three divisions, which are expected to consider the pending recommendation over the summer months.
The committee’s recommendation also calls for the NCAA to remove cannabis from its drug testing protocols. The CSMAS added that testing should be reserved for performance-enhancing drugs that provide an unfair advantage and found that cannabis does not enhance performance. The panel also listed several other rationale for the change, which “was largely informed by the December 2022 Summit on Cannabinoids in College Athletics,” according to the NCAA.
The CSMAS also recommended that the NCAA adopt a cannabis policy that is focused on harm reduction, similar to the organization’s approach to the use of alcohol by athletes. The committee suggested that any testing for cannabis be realigned to be performed at the institutional level, where the screenings can support campus efforts to identify problematic cannabis use. Additionally, the CSMAS recommended that colleges educate student-athletes on the potential harms “posed by contemporary cannabis and methods of use” and that institutions identify and explain relevant strategies to reduce or mitigate harm to individuals who choose to use cannabis.
“In addition to the policy and testing changes, CSMAS also signaled its support for the development of a comprehensive communication and education campaign that provides guidance to the membership about cannabis,” the NCAA wrote in a statement.
Rethinking Cannabis and Sports
The CSMAS recommendation follows a move by the NCAA last year to update its policies surrounding cannabis use by student-athletes. In February 2022, the organization increased the threshold for THC metabolites in athlete drug screenings from 35 to 150 nanograms per milliliter, a level consistent with regulations established by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
“Reconsidering the NCAA approach to cannabis testing and management is consistent with feedback from membership on how to better support and educate student-athletes in a society with rapidly evolving public health and cultural views regarding cannabis use,” Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, said in a press release from the organization. “Marijuana is not considered a performance-enhancing substance, but it remains important for member schools to engage student-athletes regarding substance use prevention and provide management and support when appropriate.”
A spokesman for WADA, Jon Fitzgerald, said in 2021 that WADA “consults with all stakeholders in relation to substances or methods that perhaps should be added or removed,” according to a report from the New York Times. He added that “throughout this time, the U.S. has been consistent in its strongly held position that WADA should keep cannabis on the List.”
The NCAA’s efforts to reform its marijuana policies are consistent with research that shows that cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug. In 2011, two WADA scientists and an adviser drafted a paper that is “widely cited as representing WADA’s argument that marijuana should be prohibited because it can enhance performance,” But some experts question the authors’ findings.
“The ‘evidence’ is extraordinarily weak, at least as far as this paper goes,” said Margaret Haney, a professor of neurobiology at Columbia University, the director of the Cannabis Research Laboratory. She also noted that cannabis “reduces reaction time and has other effects that would worsen performance” from athletes in competition.
In 2018, a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that research has documented no evidence that cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug for athletes.
“Although cannabis use is more prevalent in some athletes engaged in high-risk sports, there is no direct evidence of performance-enhancing effects in athletes,” the authors of the study wrote.
A separate study published in 2020 found that cannabis “does not act as a sport performance enhancing agent as raised by popular beliefs,” adding “Thus, cannabis consumption prior to exercise should be avoided in order to maximize performance in sports.”
The legalization of cannabis for medical and recreational purposes in jurisdictions across the globe has heightened interest in the wellness benefits of cannabis. The new focus has led to a rethinking of policies that ban the use of cannabis by athletes, some of whom use the drug as an aid in recovery after workouts. The controversy came to a head in 2021 when leading sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was denied a spot on the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team after testing positive for cannabis in a qualifying meet.
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