PEDS no more? The NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS) have recommended a rule change that would remove cannabis from the the NCAA’s list of banned substances entirely. The announcement was made this Friday. The committee also called for a “robust educational strategy” when it comes to student athletes using left-handed cigarettes.
Removing cannabis from PEDS list: wasted energy
CSMAS admitted in their announcement that testing for cannabis was wasted effort for a program designed to find performance enhancing drugs. In February 2022, CSMAS adjusted the thresholds for cannabinoid testing allowing for more flexibility. A large reason for the change in 2022 was due to the possible therapeutic uses of the substance. It was stated then that the next step would be to find a path to education instead of banning cannabis all together.
In addition to that, CSMAS added the following rationale for removing the drug:
- Focusing on testing for substances that provide an unfair advantage by enhancing athletic performance (PEDS).
- Shifting towards a harm reduction philosophy for cannabis, similar to the approaches taken with alcohol.
- Realigning towards institutional testing and how that testing supports/enhances campus efforts to identify problematic cannabis use.
- Educating student-athletes on the health threats posed by contemporary cannabis and methods of use.
- Identifying and explaining relevant harm reduction/mitigation strategies to those student-athletes who choose to legally consume cannabis.
It’s worth noting that cannabis is not yet legalized by the NCAA, only suggested by CSMAS. Anyone that fails a drug test for cannabis will be suspended by the NCAA.
Times are changing
As the mindset around cannabis changes in society at large, it is also changing in sport. It’s been a banned substance (although no one ever really claimed it was a performance enhancing drug PEDS) since the inception of drug testing in the NCAA in 1986. But as public opinion changed, calls for leniency and removal of the substance from the banned list has been a repeating theme.
In 2013, the NCAA lowered the threshold for positive tests from 15 ng/mL to 5 ng/mL. The penalty was half a season for suspension. They then raised it back to 15 ng/ML in 2017 then to 35 ng/ML. In 2023, the NCAA raised the threshold for marijuana from 35 ng/mL to 150. This means it will take more of the substance to trigger a suspension. The Devil’s lettuce may be legal for student athletes to take soon. It’s benefits include anxiety relief and inflammation reduction, something that NCAA wrestlers fight with every year.
In 2020, Arizona State wrestler Zahid Valencia was suspended for nine months due to a failed drug test. Valencia, who finished third in this year’s freestyle World Championships in Belgrade. He won two national championships in 2018 and 2019 before being suspended for the majority of 2020. After competing in the Matteo Pellicone event in February, a freestyle event, not NCAA, he failed the drug test and was suspended from Arizona State for the remainder of the season.
Valencia won his two national championships at 174 and made the move to 184 for the 2020 year. He as 121-3 overall at Arizona State and 20-0 on the season. Despite his impressive accolades, Valencia was still ultimately let go by the team in his senior season.
Valencia may be doing his dance to this news despite his career being over with the NCAA. But if anyone knows what the rule can do to a career, it is he. The NCAA said in a release earlier in the year that “Cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug and that can harm-reduction approach to cannabis is best implemented at the school level.” In other words, Valencia was treated like like he was shooting up trenbolone when he was just taking a toke to calm his nerves.
A short history of cannabis in sport.
If the NCAA wants to have a truly fair anti-doping policy, then removing cannabis is the right move. It does not enhance performance any more than anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen does. Nor does it mask any drugs that could enhance performance.
Michael Phelps was most famously demeaned for partaking. 23 gold medals wasn’t enough and Phelps was drug through the media for using the drug. LSU’s Sha’Carri Richardson was ruled ineligible for the Tokyo Olympics. On the other side of the spectrum, Russia’s Kamila Valieva, a figure skater, failed for the drug and was allowed to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics. Each time, the silliness of the suspension is called out.
There is no scientific evidence for cannabis being a performance-enhancing drugs. In January, the UFC removed it’s ban on the substance, though the athletic commissions still have a say on it’s legality in competition.
The Associated Press conducted a study in 2015 and found that 23 of 57 schools reduced it’s penalties for cannabis use since 2005. The universities often test for the drug instead of the sanctioning bodies meaning that the school is spending money on tracking down a substance that is not known to enhance performance.
The UFC and mixed martial arts have had a long history with marijuana. As mentioned, the UFC removed cannabis from it’s banned substance list. Jeff Novitzky, who is the senior vice president of athlete health and performance for the UFC, said that there would need to be clear signs of intoxication in a fight for a suspension to come down.
In 2015, Nick Diaz was given an absurd five year suspension from the Nevada State Athletic Commission after failing for marijuana after his fight with Anderson Silva. He failed repeatedly which is why he had such a long suspension. He failed in 2007 and 2012 before that. Diaz made his return in 2021 when he lost to Robbie Lawler.
With the UFC changing their rules about PEDS and the NCAA following behind, it will be down to a state by state basis or federal ruling legalizing marijuana. Cannabis is still illegal in most of the United States and failing a drug test will still have implications on law breaking even if it’s removed from the banned drug list. But today’s news is a step in the right direction.
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