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NCAA committee adjusts marijuana testing threshold

By Brian Hendrickson

The NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS) voted at its December meeting to set the threshold for a positive marijuana test at NCAA championships at a level that is consistent with current best practices in drug testing and which will more accurately identify usage among student-athletes.

After recent recommendations from the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS) regarding changing both the marijuana testing thresholds and penalty structure, NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline offered the following answers to questions regarding these initiatives.

Hainline, who began his duties as the NCAA’s chief medical officer this month, is a neurologist with more than 20 years of sports medicine experience as a treating physician, administrator and policy maker. He is co-author of “Drugs and the Athlete,” a book credited with helping to change the international approach to drug testing and substance abuse education.

The new threshold of five nanograms per milliliter will take effect on Aug. 1, 2013. The NCAA currently tests for marijuana at its championships and postseason bowl events.   The NCAA’s year-round testing program focuses on testing for performance-enhancing substances and masking agent.

The CSMAS, which has the authority to establish and modify drug-testing thresholds, decided to change the marijuana threshold after the committee reviewed recent research to determine at which point current testing technology could accurately identify the intentional use of marijuana without also trapping student-athletes exposed to second-hand smoke. The previous threshold of 15 nanograms per milliliter was set when the NCAA established its testing program in 1986 and followed the standards for workplace testing. Tests at that time could not distinguish second-hand consumption at a more sensitive level.

After its research, the CSMAS concluded that a five nanogram per milliliter sample was definitively indicative of direct use.

The CSMAS also recommended new legislation to amend the penalty for positive tests for street drugs at championship events to a half-season of competition. Student-athletes who test positive currently must sit out a full season, the same penalty given for performance-enhancing drugs. The CSMAS determined that banned performance drugs, such as steroids, should be addressed differently from non-performance-enhancing drugs, including marijuana.

“The CSMAS recommendations are a step forward in drug testing and education,” said NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline. “There is no good scientific evidence that marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug, and it makes both scientific and philosophical sense to treat marijuana usage by student-athletes differently than anabolic-androgenic steroid use. We want to deter use, but it is also our moral responsibility to try to change the behavior of student-athletes who may be abusing street drugs such as marijuana.” (Read more from Hainline in the attached Q&A document)

Because drug testing is conducted to protect student-athlete health and safety and to deter drug use, the CSMAS speculated that the reduced penalty would allow student-athletes who test positive to remain in their athletics programs and be provided with counseling and treatment on campus.

The amended penalty proposal will be introduced into the legislative cycle in all three divisions this year, with the earliest implementation coming in August 2014.

Other highlights

In other action at the competitive-safeguards committee’s December meeting, members:

  • Established a testing standard for synthetic cannabinoids, which have not previously been tested for at NCAA championship events. The committee approved testing for those substances using the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) laboratory testing standard for level of detection.
  • Considered a request from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body for track and field, to develop an NCAA process for student-athletes to waive the confidentiality of their drug-test results and permit the NCAA to inform WADA of student-athlete testing history and results. CSMAS determined that the responsibility for providing that process rests with the body requesting the information.
  • Recommended that the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Rules Committee discuss options for minimizing the risk of head impacts during play. The committee recommended wording in the rule “targeting the head” to ensure athletes are penalized for contacting the head or neck whether there is intent or not. The committee also recommended removing the word “deliberately” while initiating contact to an opponent’s head or neck. The CSMAS suggested adding a point of emphasis to penalize players who initiate a hit or check without intention to go after the ball during ground-ball and loose-ball situations. The committee also recommended modifications to face-offs that regard the circle circumference; limiting the access of players outside the circle to enter; and moving the wings closer to the circle to reduce the run-up speed prior to impacting face-off participants.