NCAA Committee Outlines Cannabis Harm-Reduction and Education Strategy

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Two key takeaways from the December 2022 Cannabis in Collegiate Athletics Summit, hosted by the NCAA Sport Science Institute, included agreement that cannabinoids are not a performance-enhancing substance and that moving to a campus-focused harm-reduction and education model could best help schools prevent, identify and manage problematic cannabinoid use.

This led the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports to recommend in September that each of the three divisions adopt legislation to remove cannabinoids from the NCAA's list of banned substances. 

Some critics of this recommendation question whether removing the substance from the banned list promotes or condones cannabinoid use, but committee members said that is not the case. 

"We know that the previous cannabinoid policies and sanctions were not an effective deterrent to cannabinoid use," said Deena Casiero, the vice chair of the committee and head team physician at UConn. "We should be focusing on student-athletes who have or are at risk for cannabis use disorder. Randomly testing at NCAA championships is not the best way to identify or help student-athletes with use issues. The best way is to encourage schools to educate and test within an established harm-reduction strategy in their local spaces."

Leading national and international subject-matter experts and representatives from the NCAA membership attended the 2022 summit in Indianapolis, where they confirmed that cannabinoids should not be considered a performance-enhancing substance and that cannabinoid use by student-athletes should be treated through a harm-reduction approach similar to alcohol use. 

For decades, schools have attempted to educate student-athletes about responsible alcohol consumption and how alcohol could affect their bodies and athletic performance. But alcohol is not randomly tested for at the 90 NCAA championships, while cannabinoids are.

While the THC threshold and penalty structure were changed last year, CSMAS asked, "What is the Association trying to accomplish when it comes to drug testing at the national level?"

"We're trying to help these young adults understand and manage something that is present versus saying don't do it, or if you do it, you're bad," said Jamey Houle, chair of CSMAS and lead sport psychologist at Ohio State. "It is a more complicated evolution and understanding of drug misuse. Drug misuse is a mental health issue. We don't punish student-athletes for having an eating disorder. We don't punish student-athletes for having depression, and we shouldn't punish student-athletes for drug misuse." 

CSMAS made it clear that the recommendation is not to promote cannabinoid use among student-athletes. 

"We are doing the opposite," Houle said. "We are not promoting marijuana use. We are promoting effective strategies to address problematic marijuana use."

As the issue of removing cannabinoids from the banned substance list is discussed in the three NCAA divisional governance structures, CSMAS will work to develop enhanced education informed by the outcomes of the summit that schools may use to help educate their student-athletes.

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