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NCAA Makes Historic Move: Cannabis Excluded From Prohibited List

Lemetria Whitehurst

by Lemetria Whitehurst

August 8, 2023 12:00 pm ET Estimated Read Time: 5 Minutes
NCAA Makes Historic Move: Cannabis Excluded From Prohibited List

Over the past decade, cannabis has been slowly shedding its cloak of cultural and legal disapproval to emerge as a more accepted substance in many parts of society. Yet, the world of sports has generally adhered to a contrasting perspective, viewing cannabis as a potential blight on the competitive spirit and reputation of the game. This stigma remains palpable and has even cost athletes their dream. Nevertheless, the NCAA recently made moves to remove cannabis from its list of banned substances. 

A case in point is Sha’Carri Richardson, the U.S. sprinter with a promising career, whose eligibility to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was swiftly revoked following a positive test for cannabis. The two opposing views on cannabis use – its increasing acceptance in society versus its harsh penalties in sports have set the stage for a potentially game-changing discussion in collegiate athletics.

The NCAA’s Proposed Change

The NCAA, the organization overseeing collegiate athletics, is bringing this discussion to the forefront with a bold proposition. A panel, known as the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, urges the association to remove cannabis from its list of banned substances. The reasoning behind their proposal is simple, yet profound: cannabis does not improve athletic performance. Therefore, they argue its use should not warrant the same penalties as performance-enhancing drugs.

Such a rule change, however, requires a more complex process. It would have to be introduced and adopted by the three NCAA divisional boards before it could take effect. In light of these ongoing discussions,the NCAA has decided to suspend cannabis testing at its championship events until a final decision is reached, signaling an unprecedented shift in attitude towards the substance.

Contextualizing the NCAA’s Move

To fully appreciate the magnitude of the NCAA’s potential shift, it’s important to understand its historical stance on cannabis. Over the past few years, the association has been gradually reassessing its perspective on cannabis use, exemplified by last year’s decision to raise the THC threshold needed to produce a positive drug test.

This trend isn’t unique to the NCAA. In fact, it mirrors a broader movement among sports organizations towards a more lenient view on cannabis use. Back in 2019, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced it was removing cannabis from its list of “drugs of abuse,” while the National Football League (NFL) suspended testing for THC during the off-season in 2021. These policy changes across different sports leagues suggest a collective evolution in attitudes towards cannabis, potentially paving the way for a new era in athlete drug policy.

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Impact and Implications

The potential impact of this rule change is far-reaching. The NCAA oversees collegiate athletics at around 1,100 schools in the United States and Canada, encompassing more than half a million student-athletes. This shift in policy could reshape the lives of these athletes, providing relief from the threat of penalties for cannabis use while also promoting a more informed understanding of the substance. The proposed changes could foster an environment that champions fairness and equity, ensuring that athletes aren’t disproportionately penalized for actions that don’t enhance their performance in sports.

Beyond the world of college sports, the implications of this shift could ripple out into the wider society. It could contribute to changing the narrative on cannabis use, pushing for education over punishment, and shaping the broader conversation around drug policy. Moreover, it signals to other institutions, both within and outside the sports world, that it’s possible to adopt a more nuanced and progressive stance towards cannabis use. In essence, the NCAA’s potential rule change represents more than a policy alteration – it could change how we view and manage cannabis use in our society.

Looking Towards the Future

As we look towards the future, all eyes are on the NCAA, with a final decision expected to arrive in the fall. If the proposed changes are accepted, it would mark a significant shift in the NCAA’s approach towards cannabis. The panel has suggested the association consider treating cannabis in the same light as alcohol. This means moving away from punitive measures for its use and instead focusing on educating athletic student-athletes about any health concerns associated with cannabis.

The intention is to adopt a more nuanced and informed approach that fosters understanding rather than fear and promotes responsible decision-making among student-athletes. This proposed shift from punishment to education could set a new standard for handling substance use in college sports and beyond. 

The Bottom Line

The NCAA’s potential rule change that would remove cannabis from the prohibited substances list signifies a major shift in the association’s approach, and indeed, the sports world’s stance on cannabis. It’s a move that mirrors societal changes, reflecting an evolved understanding of cannabis and its impact on performance. The proposition is rooted in the argument that cannabis isn’t a performance-enhancing drug and hence shouldn’t be treated as one. Furthermore, it calls for a shift away from punishment and towards education, promoting a more informed and responsible substance use among student-athletes. 

The potential implications of this move are immense, extending beyond the half a million student-athletes under the NCAA’s jurisdiction, and could play a significant role in shaping societal attitudes and policies towards cannabis use. As we await the NCAA’s final decision in the fall, we stand on the precipice of a transformative moment in sports and societal history – one that could redefine our collective understanding and management of cannabis use.

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