For years, strict drug policies have subjected college athletes to suspensions and other penalties for marijuana use, despite growing legalization and acceptance of the substance across the US. But in a recent landmark decision, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has announced the removal of marijuana from its list of banned substances for college athletes.

Earlier this year, the NCAA’s Division I Council proposed the rule change, and the policy was then adopted on June 25th, emphasizing that marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug, It therefore should be treated similarly to alcohol and tobacco, substances that are regulated but not typically grounds for severe penalties in sports.

This move marks a significant shift in the organization’s approach to drug policies, reflecting evolving attitudes and scientific understanding surrounding cannabis use and building off their policy change from back in 2022 which had increased the allowed threshold of THC for college athletes, making them similar to the current policies of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Student athletes during a football game between Sierra College and Santa Rosa Junior College/ Photo Credit: David Sunburn CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 via Creative Commons

Student athletes during a football game between Sierra College and Santa Rosa Junior College/ Photo Credit: David Sunburn CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 via Creative Commons

Josh Whitman, who is the athletic director at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and currently serves as the NCAA Council Chairman stated that “The NCAA drug testing program is intended to focus on the integrity of competition, and cannabis products do not provide a competitive advantage.”

The decision to revise these regulations acknowledges the changing landscape of cannabis laws and the shifting societal norms regarding its use. This decision also comes amidst a broader national debate on marijuana legalization and its impact on various sectors, including athletics.

Back in 2021, Team USA Olympic runner Sha’Carri Richardson was controversially barred from competing in the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for marijuana, causing an international uproar and thrusting discussion about cannabis use among professional athletes into the public spotlight.

Sha'Carri Richardson Photo Credit: jenaragon94, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Sha’Carri Richardson Photo Credit: jenaragon94, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Following her suspension, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) stated that the rules needed to change, and the president himself even chimed in and stated that it was time for new marijuana policies in professional sports. In the three years since this scandal, Richardson has won the US Olympic running trials and is now set to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Critics of the previous policy also highlighted its potential to disproportionately affect athletes, particularly those from marginalized communities, where enforcement of drug policies could exacerbate existing disparities. Moreover, studies have suggested that punitive measures for marijuana use may not align with the actual health risks associated with the drug, especially when compared to other substances on the banned list.

Penn State college basketball players./Photo Credit:Ben Stanfield /CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Penn State college basketball players./Photo Credit:Ben Stanfield /CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The new NCAA policy reflects a more nuanced approach to drug use among college athletes, emphasizing education, health, and safety over punitive measures. It also aligns with the NCAA’s broader commitment to supporting the well-being and academic success of student-athletes. 

In response to the change, athletes, coaches, and advocates have expressed varying opinions. Some applaud the NCAA’s decision as a step towards progressive drug policies that prioritize athlete welfare and fairness. Others caution that the implementation and enforcement of these revised guidelines will be critical in ensuring consistency and transparency across all collegiate sports programs. Looking ahead, the NCAA’s decision is expected to influence discussions and policies regarding marijuana use in other sports organizations and institutions. 

UNC Tar Heels (women) beat UCLA Bruins 2-0 on goals from Casey Nogueira and Heather O’Reilly. Photo Credit: Jarrett Campbell/CC BY 4.0 via Creative Commons

UNC Tar Heels (women) beat UCLA Bruins 2-0 on goals from Casey Nogueira and Heather O’Reilly. Photo Credit: Jarrett Campbell/CC BY 4.0 via Creative Commons

As more states legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, the NCAA’s revised stance may encourage similar updates among high school athletic associations and other professional leagues. As an example, the NFL players union made an agreement with the league to end the NFL’s policy of suspending players because of marijuana use as part of the union’s collective bargaining agreement back in 2020.

The NFL has even committed significant funding for researching if CBD can serve as an effective alternative to opioids. It also has explored the potential therapeutic use of the non-intoxicating cannabinoid for neuroprotection from concussions and general pain management. Meanwhile, UFC announced back in December that it is formally removing marijuana from the league’s newly modified banned substances list, which builds on an earlier reform that they had adopted.

Ultimately, the removal of marijuana from the NCAA’s banned substances list represents a significant policy shift with far-reaching implications. It underscores the importance of adapting regulations to reflect current social attitudes and scientific understanding while promoting equity and athlete well-being in collegiate athletics.

AJ Favorito is a freelance writer, photographer, and filmmaker specializing in comedy and animation. 

Works Cited

Jaeger, Kyle. “NCAA Votes to Remove Marijuana from Banned Substances List for College Athletes.” Marijuana Moment, Marijuana Moment LLC, 26 June 2024, www.marijuanamoment.net/ncaa-votes-to-remove-marijuana-from-banned-substances-list-for-college-athletes/.

Parks, James. “NCAA Votes on Cannabis in College Football: What It Means.” Sports Illustrated, Authentic Brands Group, 26 June 2024, www.si.com/fannation/college/cfb-hq/news/ncaa-cannabis-vote-college-football-what-it-means.

Sforza, Lauren. “NCAA Lifts Ban on Cannabis Use for Athletes in Championships.” The Hill, Nexstar Media Inc, 26 June 2024, thehill.com/blogs/in-the-know/4741841-ncaa-lifts-cannabis-ban-athletes.