Josh Kendall

Why it’s time for colleges to rethink punishment for pot

Twenty percent of Division I and Division II college athletes use or have used marijuana, according to the NCAA’s survey and testing data. That figure is less than the overall student population, which is more than 30 percent.
Twenty percent of Division I and Division II college athletes use or have used marijuana, according to the NCAA’s survey and testing data. That figure is less than the overall student population, which is more than 30 percent. AP

College football coaches love to preach.

Nick Saban is at the pulpit often.

Here’s what Alabama’s head coach says about college football’s approach to testing and punishment for marijuana usage: “I’m not opposed to, ‘Does somebody have a better way to provide medical treatment and help for players who have issues with any kind of substance abuse?’ But drug testing is punitive. So what did we do to help? We do things internally in our program to help our players. There’s greater things beside just punitive action that needs to be done to resolve this issue with young people.”

In short, Saban wants a way to “discipline” a player for marijuana usage that doesn’t affect Saban’s football team and paycheck.

That’s a self-serving opinion.

It’s also not wrong.

It’s time for college athletic departments to rethink the way they approach marijuana usage. In fact, it’s time for them to eliminate the punitive part of their approach for good.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, is ready for college sport’s most powerful oversight committee to wash its hands of the subject entirely.

“I am more of a believer that year-round testing and championship testing should be for performance-enhancing drugs and that to address alcohol and marijuana and opiates and other recreational drugs I think that should be a campus matter,” Hainline told The State.

Hainline, a senior vice president at the NCAA, is a professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine and Indiana University School of Medicine, the co-author of “Drugs and the Athlete” and has been involved in international anti-doping efforts with the Olympics and United States Tennis Association.

He points out that his personal opinion is not currently the law of the land, but it could drive what’s to come at the intersection of college athletes and illicit drug use.

USC president Harris Pastides told The State last year he sees no appetite at his school or in this part of the country to change the way athletic departments approach marijuana testing and punishment, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said at the conference’s annual summer meetings that the issue was not on his agenda in either the short or the long term.

But Hainline believes college sports is in the midst of an “evolving dialogue” about the way it handles the issue. The NCAA is in the process of providing all its member institutions with a “bio-phsyco-social model” for handling recreational drug use, he said.

“That means if you do test positive there is a consequence of the positive but the consequence isn’t to kick someone off the team. The consequence is to find out, ‘Why did you test positive? Are you addicted? Is this just casual use? Are you self-destructive?’ And then begin a program of appropriate treatment which in some cases means rehabilitation,” Hainline said. “I think where we’re moving is that direction, but the membership has to agree to that. There’s very active dialogue about that, but I think the membership also wants to feel they are empowered with the tools to carry this out.”

Twenty percent of Division I and Division II college athletes use or have used marijuana, according to the NCAA’s survey and testing data, Hainline said. That figure is less than the overall student population, which is more than 30 percent, according to Mary Wilfert, the associate director of the NCAA’s Sports Science Institute.

Alcohol abuse is “a greater concern” for the NCAA than marijuana use, Wilfert said.

“That is the No. 1 abused substance on campus,” she said. “It’s certainly not treated the same way as marijuana because for the most part people perceive marijuana as illicit and illegal and they don’t perceive alcohol the same way.”

That’s changing though. Nine states have legalized marijuana possession for adults, and the NFL Players Association plans to submit this year a proposal to the NFL that would lessen the penalties for marijuana usage. The league already has increased the amount of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) needed to constitute a positive test.

“I do think that addressing it more in a treatment and less punitive measure is appropriate,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told the Washington Post. “I think it’s important to look at whether there are addiction issues. And I think it’s important to not simply assume recreation is the reason it’s being used. We have to do a better job of knowing if our players are suffering from other potentially dangerous psychological issues like depression, right? The reason why I think it’s more complicated than just making a quick decision about recreational use is we look at these things as a macro-issue. And what we try to do is what a union’s supposed to do: improve the health and safety of our players in a business that sometimes can seriously exacerbate existing physical and mental issues.”

Marijuana use is forbidden by both the NCAA and SEC, although the frequency of testing, punishments for a positive test and even the amount of THC that represents a positive test vary from campus to campus. For instance, at Georgia and Mississippi State a first positive test for marijuana results in a suspension from 10 percent of a season’s competition, while at many schools a first positive test results in no loss of competition time. The frequency of testing also varies. While an athlete at Florida is tested once every semester (potentially four times in a year), athletes at other schools may be tested fewer times in a calendar year.

The NCAA only tests athletes at its championship events. Meaning the only college football players tested by the NCAA last season were the players at Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington, and any players who tested positive during that time were subject to a six-game penalty to start next season.

“So just because you got into the championship and the playoff last year your guys got tested so those guys are all getting suspended next year?” Saban asked. “Let me ask you the question: What good does it do for a guy who got tested in December to suspend him six games next September? Is this changing behavior? You know discipline is not just punishment, it’s changing someone’s behavior so they a chance to have more success and have a better chance to be successful. I don’t think that helps. I don’t think the guy can even remember, I know I won’t remember in September what happened in December of the previous year.”

A problem with eliminating all NCAA testing is that some schools don’t have the resources to test athletes on their own, Hainline said.

“We have to empower all the schools to find a way to address this at the campus level,” he said. “That’s where it’s best addressed. I don’t think the national office should be the moral police on all the campuses.”

For one thing, it’s not working. There has been a “slight uptick” in positive marijuana tests in Division I and Division II, Hainline said. The NCAA’s assessment that 20 percent of Division I and Division II athletes and nearly 30 percent of Division III athletes are using marijuana is based on anonymous survey and testing data, and is confident the numbers are an accurate reflection of usage, Wilfert said.

“What we don’t have good data on is abuse,” Hainline said. “We’re getting into very tricky territory here. If someone is an occasional smoker are they an abuser of marijuana? I’m not going to offer an opinion on that, but I do think that what we don’t have good data on is the number of kids who are addicted to marijuana and how that’s affecting them adversely.”

USC trustee Chuck Allen, a lawyer in Anderson, told The State he believes the penalties for all substance abuse should be uniform across the SEC and that he would not object to removing the punitive parts of the current regulations for a positive marijuana test.

“There does appear to be somewhat of a changing attitude in the country regarding marijuana usage as indicated by the legalization of it in various states,” Allen said in a statement released to the school. “The main objective of drug testing in athletic competitions on any level is the detection and deterrence of the use of performance enhancing drugs. Drug testing for recreational substances necessitates the consideration of a different approach. While PED usage by athletes should be punished severely by disqualification, the use of recreational substances should be addressed with intervention and remedial treatment. The two scenarios are distinctly different. The policy should reflect that.”

College administrators need to ask themselves, “Why am I drug testing?” Hainline said.

“If the reason is to prevent cheating in sport and prevent an unfair competitive advantage, then you want to have a very good deterrence model for performance-enhancing drugs and then a separate reason to test is you really have a medical and social and ethical concern about the negative impacts of alcohol and other recreational drugs,” he said. “Once you have set it up that way, I think you logically lead to two different testing paradigms. One is more punitive and is for eliminating cheating the other is much more holistic and rehabilitative.”

Penalties for testing positive for pot in the SEC

The punishment for positive marijuana tests varies widely across the SEC and Power 5 conferences. Below are the mandatory suspensions per positive tests for marijuana at USC and some other SEC schools. Most schools also require counseling and some require community service for positive tests.

South Carolina

First Positive Test – No suspension

Second Positive Test – Suspension for 25 percent of season’s competition

Third Positive Test -- Dismissal

Arkansas

First Positive Test – No suspension

Second Positive Test – Suspension for 10 percent of season’s competition

Third Positive Test – Suspension for 25 percent of season’s competition

Fourth positive Test – Dismissal

Auburn

First Positive Test – No suspension

Second Positive Test – Suspension for 25 percent of season’s competition

Third Positive Test -- Suspension for 50 percent of season’s competition

Fourth Positive Test – Suspension for full season

Fifth Positive Test – Dismissal

Florida

First Positive Test – No suspension

Second Positive Test – Suspension for 10 percent of season’s competition

Third Positive Test -- Suspension for 20 percent of season’s competition

Fourth offense – Indefinite suspension, possible dismissal

Georgia

First Positive Test – Suspension for 10 percent of season’s competition

Second Positive Test – Suspension for 30 percent of season’s competition

Third Positive Test -- Dismissal

Mississippi State

First Positive Test – Suspension for 10 percent of season’s competition

Second Positive Test – Suspension for 20 percent of season’s competition

Third Positive Test -- Dismissal

Missouri

First Positive Test – No suspension

Second Positive Test – Suspended at least seven days

Third Positive Test -- Dismissal

Texas A&M

First Positive Test – No suspension

Second Positive Test – Suspension for 20 percent of season’s competition

Third Positive Test – Suspension for 50 percent of season’s competition

Fourth Positive Test – Dismissal

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