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NCAA increases THC testing threshold

CSMAS approves higher limit, commits to evaluating acclimatization and transition periods

The THC threshold used for NCAA drug testing has been increased.

At a meeting last week in Indianapolis, the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports decided to bump the THC testing threshold for student-athletes from 15 to 35 nanograms per milliliter. The committee made the decision in order to prevent those who have inhaled cannabis via secondhand smoke from triggering a positive test and facing penalties.

“The committee wanted to be fair and to eliminate, as best as we could, penalizing students who receive passive smoke,” says Doug Ramos, committee chair and Creighton team physician. “The decision is based on the science that pertains to passive inhalation.”

The NCAA raised the threshold from 5 to 15 nanograms per milliliter in 2017 out of concern for passive inhalation. Since the shift, the NCAA’s drug-testing partner, Drug Free Sport International, has tested 675 student-athletes, with 78 yielding a positive test. Of those, 40% registered lower than 50 nanograms per milliliter, including several student-athletes who indicated the positive test was the result of secondhand inhalation.

The decision comes as THC concentrations in commercially produced cannabis plants are on the rise and as the drug is being legalized in more states, a combination poised to expose college athletes to more potent secondhand smoke. The move to 35 nanograms per milliliter also mirrors the standard in effect in several major professional sports leagues, including the NFL, NBA and WNBA.

While the committee raised the threshold, it was adamant that the move was not an endorsement of cannabis use, with several committee members citing the increasingly recognized mental health risks among young adults who use the drug, as well as the sometimes dangerous effects of high-concentration edible products.

“The committee also didn’t want to place the threshold too high and imply that the NCAA condones cannabis use,” Ramos said. “This is a health and safety issue — even though it is now more accepted nationally and societally, there are some detrimental effects.”

Acclimatization and transition periods

In the wake of the recent release of interassociation recommendations on the prevention of catastrophic injury and death in collegiate student-athletes, CSMAS has formally committed to studying acclimatization and transition periods across relevant NCAA sports. The task of further exploring the topic and crafting any relevant legislative or policy proposals will fall to the CSMAS Prevention and Performance Subcommittee. Football is now the only NCAA sport with a legislated acclimatization period (five days in all divisions). The periods are intended to allow student-athletes to gradually acclimate to the heat and the physical rigors of their sport before engaging in full practices in hopes of mitigating the risks of heat-related illnesses.

Transition periods — which occur in all sports when student-athletes return to their sports in the fall, after winter and spring breaks, or after injuries — are not addressed now by NCAA legislation. Data show injury rates spike when student-athletes return to practice in the preseason; the subcommittee will examine whether implementing rules related to transition periods could contribute to lower injury rates.

“In the future, formal action will have to be taken regarding acclimatization and transition periods,” Ramos said. “They need to be standardized; they need to be uniform. And it’s not just at the start of the season. It’s in time periods when you’re coming back into the sport. We need to evaluate our preseason and come to some sort of uniformity on that front because of how it relates to injury rates.”

Soccer periodization

The committee issued a formal statement in response to a three-year study that analyzed connections between soccer’s practice and competition schedule and injuries in the sport. The study was performed by UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute and involved 12 Division I men’s and women’s soccer teams.

The study found that student-athletes of both genders experienced higher rates of noncontact and overuse injuries when matches occurred with five or fewer days of rest between games; preseason practice injury rates were substantially higher than at any other point during the season; the total volume of activity in a single day is predictive of injury risk; and when more time is provided between matches, injury rates during practice tended to increase because of increased load during training.

The committee noted that the study results are still subject to the peer review process and that the results should not yet shape what changes to college soccer schedules, if any, should be implemented. “In the meantime, the committee will continue to seek solutions/initiatives that address the health and safety challenges facing soccer student-athletes,” the committee wrote.

Other actions:

  • The committee created an NCAA Drug Test Appeal Subcommittee to field positive drug test appeals from student-athletes. The committee will include a mix of CSMAS members and other NCAA members with relevant expertise and will be the NCAA’s sole mechanism for drug-testing appeals. The subcommittee was created to ease the growing appeals process workload on current CSMAS members caused by an increasing number of failed drug tests.
  • CSMAS has proposed meeting more frequently in an effort to provide more timely input to the NCAA membership on legislative proposals that could have health and safety implications. The committee now meets in June and December. Should the NCAA Board of Governors approve the recommended schedule change, the committee would meet every February, June and September and would hold a December conference call. The shift more closely mirrors the quarterly legislative governance calendar. If the Board approves the change, it will take effect in 2020.
  • Ramos served his last meeting as committee chair. Jessica Mohler, current vice chair and assistant director of Navy’s Midshipmen Development Center, will serve as chair beginning in the fall. Mark Stovak, team physician at Nevada, was elected vice chair and will also begin his term in the fall.