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Colleges Ease Athlete Punishments for Cannabis

Colleges across the country have been slowly easing penalties facing student–athletes who fail screenings for cannabis, a new Associated Press analysis has found. And statements by the NCAA's medical chief suggest the organization is shifting its focus away from recreational drugs and toward substances it considers cheating.

"The NCAA last year cut in half the penalty for athletes who fail screenings for substances like marijuana at its championship events, and its chief medical officer is pushing for college sports' governing body to get out of the business of testing for rec drugs altogether. The AP found that some of the nation's biggest universities, from Oregon to Auburn, have already eased their punishments as society's views on marijuana use have changed."

AP looked at policies from 57 of the 65 schools in the Southeastern Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences, as well as Notre Dame. 

Since 2005, 23 of the schools have either reduced penalties for failed tests involving cannabis and certain other substances or allowed athletes to test positive more times before facing suspension or dismissal. In Washington state and Oregon, which legalized recreational cannabis use during the time period AP analyzed, punishment has eased significantly despite the fact that schools still prohibit it:

"At Oregon, an athlete doesn't lose playing time until a third failed test; at Oregon State, a third failed test used to mean dismissal, but athletes are now given one more chance.

"At Washington, a third failed test used to be a one-year suspension but is now just 30 days."

Schools in other states adopt an array of policies, but many have become more lenient toward cannabis and other so-called street drugs, even in states where cannabis remains illegal. Athletic directors say the focus is increasingly on rehabilitation rather than punishment, especially as cultural attitudes toward cannabis change. 

“It’s a moving target, and we have to find that balance between being too punitive and not punitive enough, and making sure that we help people that have a problem,” Utah athletic director Chris Hill told AP.

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The changes also reflect the NCAA’s focus on performance-enhancing drugs rather than recreational ones. Athletes who test positive for PEDs usually face a one-year suspension, while an initial positive test for cannabis typically results in counseling but no suspension.

Such policies align with views of the NCAA’s top doctor, who told the AP he feels the body should worry about cheating, not policing morality:

"NCAA medical chief Dr. Brian Hainline said his organization should concentrate on busting athletes who use PEDs and leave it to the schools to deal with the rest, preferably through treatment rather than punishment.

"'The most important thing that I can't emphasize enough is that as a society, we have to make a clear distinction between recreational drug use and cheating,’ Hainline said. ‘I really believe that they require two different approaches. One is more nuanced, and one is hard core.’

"What about marijuana being against the law in most states?

"‘If we're going to test at championship events for things that are illegal, then we shouldn't just test for pot,’ Hainline said. ‘If there are any kids under the age of 18 smoking cigarettes, we should test for that. We certainly should be testing for alcohol for everyone under the age of 21. Then we ask ourselves, 'Where does the moral authority stop?' I'm all for moral authority as long as there is a philosophical consistency to it.’"

It'd be a mistake not to mention reports Tuesday night that three Clemson football players headed for the Orange Bowl have been suspended for failed drug tests. As of Wednesday afternoon, however, it still wasn’t clear what substances were detected.

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