Posted on January 16, 2015 at 9:43 am Updated: January 16, 2015 at 10:00 am

After Oregon Suspensions, NCAA To Re-Examine Recreational Drug Policy

Oregon running back Ayele Forde (30) was one of two players suspended for the national title game for failing a recreational drug test.

Oregon running back Ayele Forde (30) was one of two players suspended for the national title game for failing a recreational drug test.

CREDIT: (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

Just days after two University of Oregon football players were suspended for the College Football Playoff national championship game for failing marijuana tests, the NCAA announced that it plans to re-examine its approach to testing for recreational drug use.

A release published on the NCAA’s web site Thursday said that the organization’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports “recommended extensive changes to the NCAA’s drug-testing policies when it convened in mid-December in Indianapolis.” Among those changes: increased testing and preventative efforts for performance enhancing drugs, and a new model for prevention of recreational drug use that focuses “on educational programs instead of a traditional testing model.”

“Use of recreational drugs should absolutely be discouraged, the committee members said; but because they do not provide a competitive advantage, alternative approaches to testing should be developed,” the announcement on states.

While the recommendations were made before Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington and running back Ayele Forde were suspended for the title game, their cases brought scrutiny to the NCAA’s policy. The NCAA traditionally leaves drug testing to schools until postseason events like bowl games or the NCAA Tournament, but its punishment for failing a drug test — a half-season suspension — is far more severe than most school policies. It also uses a threshold for a failed marijuana test that is much stricter than other sports leagues, including the NFL, MLB, and World Anti-Doping Agency, and is even tougher than the threshold used for commercial airline pilots, as Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel reported.

Testing for recreational drug use has drawn more attention as states have loosened laws around marijuana use — recreational marijuana is now legal in four states; medical use is approved in more than 20 — especially as research and surveys have shown that testing is not an effective deterrent to use when it comes to recreational drugs. Indeed, surveys of college athletes have shown that roughly the same percentage report using recreational drugs now as did when the NCAA first started testing in 1986.

The NCAA’s testing system also seems to run counter to its purported mission of educating athletes, as multiple athletes who have failed recent tests have left school when facing suspension.

The Committee on Competitive Safeguards made those points in recommending changes to the policy.

“Given that testing over nearly 30 years hasn’t served as an adequate deterrent – plus the fact that student-athletes who are penalized for recreational drug use by losing eligibility are more likely to drop out of school – the committee suggested the NCAA explore whether a different approach for recreational drugs is warranted,” the release states.

Though views may be slowly shifting in the NFL and other leagues, acknowledging testing’s lack of deterrent effect amounts to a substantial admission from a major sports organization.

The committee does not recommend doing away with testing altogether. It still suggests that athletes could be tested “on the campus level.” But it does recommend focusing on education, an approach favored by many of the NCAA’s member institutions (Oregon said that it focuses on “education and support” when athletes fail school-administered tests) and some experts who have testified in front of Congressional committees and developed programs to prevent drug use in high school students. The NCAA will still focus on testing to deter performance enhancing drug use (it might consider adding more education to that approach too, given that some research has suggested that “testing alone is not a sufficient deterrent to eliminate (performance enhancing) drug use among college athletes”).

“It is our hope the proposed model will address drug deterrence in the most effective way to change behavior,” Brant Berkstresser, committee chair and head athletic trainer at Harvard University, said in the release. “We feel that the NCAA should be focused on drug testing for those substances that may provide an unfair performance advantage.”

The committee recommendations will be developed into an actual legislative proposal for the NCAA’s members to consider adopting. The release did not provide a timetable for when the formal proposal would be developed, or when the NCAA would consider its adoption.

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