Suspensions to Oregon players bring NCAA marijuana policy into question

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DALLAS -- Oregon opened as a touchdown favorite over Ohio State in the national title game, its blur of an offense the most oppressive force in college football. The Ducks have averaged 49 points over their last nine games, boast Heisman Trophy quarterback Marcus Mariota and emanate an air of invincibility after trouncing Florida State to reach the first championship of the playoff era.

But after the suspensions of two key players, Oregon’s momentum appears in danger of going up in smoke. Two Ducks contributors failed NCAA drug tests administered at the Rose Bowl and will be suspended for the title game. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Darren Carrington and senior special teams ace Ayele Forde tested positive, with a source confirming to that both were flagged for marijuana use.

Certainly, Carrington and Forde let down their school, coaches and teammates. Both will be missed come Monday, as Carrington racked up 291 receiving yards in the past two games while Forde had 12 tackles and a forced fumble on special teams this year. But their suspensions also raise a larger societal question about the NCAA’s marijuana testing in a time when views toward the drug are changing. While the players’ poor judgment should not be excused, the situation draws attention to whether the NCAA needs to update its marijuana testing policies.

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“As a society we’re all dealing with these changes.” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens told “Federal law is still there. NCAA rules still govern. We have institutional policies and departmental policies as well. But there’s an interesting sociological element to all this.”

Consider that four states -- Oregon, Colorado, Alaska and Washington -- have passed laws legalizing recreational marijuana use.  More than twenty have legalized the drug for medical use. That means the availability of marijuana -- never difficult to find before these laws were passed -- has become even more commonplace on campus.

The NCAA’s marijuana testing thresholds appear antiquated compared to those in other sports leagues. According to an NCAA spokesperson, a positive marijuana test comes from a sample with more than five nanograms of THC -- the main ingredient in marijuana -- per milliliter of blood.

What does that mean? And what’s the timing between when a person can smoke and produce a positive test? Those are simple questions with complex answers given the variance in body types, sizes and amount of marijuana consumed.


The easiest way to quantify how strict the NCAA’s threshold is: Compare it to the threshold from other sports. The NFL increased its minimum threshold from 15 nanograms to 35 in September. The MLB's minimum is 50 nanograms, the same level as airline pilots. The World Anti-Doping Agency set its minimum at 150 nanograms, a level at which an expert contacted by USA Todaywas quoted as saying, “[one has to be a] pretty dedicated cannabis consumer” to test positive.

From doing research and talking to experts, it’s difficult to pin down what flags a test at a given level. A daily smoker carries five nanograms of THC at most times. Mason Tvert, the director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, called the NCAA’s levels “a very, very low threshold.” He added, “Someone could fail even if they last used days or possibly weeks ago.”

That creates a conundrum of whether it should matter when a player smoked if he isn’t supposed to smoke at all.

“It’s tricky,” said Ricardo Baca, the marijuana editor for the Denver Post. “When you talk to the majority of marijuana legalization advocates, especially in the situation of pro and college sports, there is no fair limit. Since marijuana isn’t considered performance enhancing, they shouldn’t care if players or teammates are using this.”

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So, does the NCAA need to change with the times? Seemingly, the answer is yes. But that’s tricky, too. First off, passing new NCAA legislation takes a lot of support and time. Is this really worth an AD or league taking up the cause as a crusade? (And do they want the publicity that comes with it?) I casually mentioned to a college official what I was writing, and he quickly pointed out that the NCAA’s testing for steroids and performance enhancing drugs is so ineffective that any drug-issue change should be to enhance the caliber of testing in that area. That’s easy to get behind. Those who don’t think there’s a bigger steroid problem in college football than testing indicates should call for directions to the unicorn farm.

That said, if the NFL’s minimum marijuana threshold is seven times higher than the NCAA’s, and the MLB’s threshold is 10 times higher, and WADA’s is 30 times higher, then it is probably worth reevaluating. The NCAA has more pressing issues, but this has come to the forefront because of Carrington and Forde’s big mistakes.

The NCAA’s drug testing isn’t the only drug testing done on campus. Each school has its own policy, as Mullens said Oregon has a four-strike policy, with the first two dealt with by education and support. The third leads to missed participation, and the fourth prompts dismissal from a team. Asked if Oregon’s policy could change with the law, Mullens said, “Again, it’s still federally illegal. There are campus policies against use. Our department policy will remain the same for now.”

The intention of this column isn’t to offer a pass to Carrington or Forde; both made immature mistakes that could cost their team the national title. (To be persnickety, marijuana possession isn’t legal in Oregon until July 1.) Offensive coordinator Scott Frost certainly didn’t excuse his players. “I think any time you put something in your body that doesn’t belong there it’s a bad decision,” Frost said.

Still, no one is sure how much marijuana each smoked to flag the test. As marijuana becomes more integrated in society, it’s probably wise for the NCAA to, well, roll with it.

“This is something that’s happening,” Baca said. “The momentum is very real. These conversations are only the beginning of conversations about marijuana use and sports. These leagues are either going to be forced to defend their policies or change them.”