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Even with Legal Pot, Student-Athletes Face Sober Future

Loyola PhoenixLoyola's mascot Lu Wolf.

The rapid legalization of cannabis use across the United States helped normalize the use of the drug for things such as pain, stress relief and insomnia. One organization not budging on its rules and its take on student-athlete’s use of the drug is the NCAA.

With a strict no-tolerance policy, the NCAA intends on discouraging student-athletes from using performance-enhancing drugs, and it impacts the eligibility of student-athletes who try to cheat by using banned substances. One of those many substances — cannabis.

“Marijuana use is banned by the NCAA and can result in suspension,” the organization’s policy reads.

Cannabis contains the substance tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC, which is responsible for giving users a high. An athlete tests positive for cannabis “if the concentration in the urine of THC metabolites is equal to or greater than 15 nanograms/ml,” according to the NCAA’s drug testing protocol.

All NCAA member institutions — including Loyola — must abide by the same drug policy. Corey Oshikoya, Loyola’s assistant athletic director for sports medicine, said cannabis is one of the things athletes are tested for in their random drug tests at Loyola. If someone tests positive, he said the person could be suspended, just as the policy states. 

To test for these substances, the NCAA uses Drug Free Sport, a drug-use prevention and drug testing service, which randomly selects eligible student-athletes for drug testing. Student-athletes are drug tested through a urine test and are observed by a member on the drug-testing staff of the same gender.

If an athlete’s drug test comes back positive for cannabis use, the result is a minimum half-season ban for the athlete. A second positive drug test for cannabis results in the loss of a year of eligibility and prohibition of participation for 365 days from the positive test. 

In addition to season-limiting penalties, student-athletes whose tests come back positive must have to go through a program which emphasizes education and care for the athlete, according to Loyola athletic director Steve Watson. He said it’s important for athletes to build upon the education they’ve received at Loyola in order to see the consequences they could be doing to their body. 

In addition to following the standards set by NCAA, Loyola Athletics also adheres to the university’s rules which prohibit cannabis on campus, according to Watson.

“We do test [randomly],” Watson said. “We do drug testing and if you test positive for recreation or performance-enhancing drug, there are penalties that are involved.”

Watson declined to give specific numbers due to the randomness of the testing. While he said he had numbers, he wouldn’t share them because it could indicate how frequently they are happening and a possible pattern.

While cannabis can be used solely as a recreational drug to create the psychoactive feeling of being high, some research indicates it has many medical benefits. Cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD, is a cannabis element that has medical benefits for health issues such as pain relief and anxiety, according to the National Institute for Health. 

Unlike the cannabis most people use recreationally, CBD doesn’t include THC — so its users don’t get a high. Because it’s an anti-inflammatory, CBD helps lower recovery time, allowing athletes to recover faster. 

Some backlash would be expected if the NCAA continued to ban cannabis after legalization, according to Oshikoya. He said there are standards the NCAA needs to maintain among their athletics and the health and safety of student-athletes.

Despite becoming a growing issue in the industry, the NCAA has made no move to adapt to the use of CBD — mostly because it isn’t legal in every state. Watson said even if the NCAA made the change to approve CBD use for the student-athletes, Loyola’s rules would still prevent them from using it. 

The NCAA bans large amounts of caffeine — the equivalent of about six to eight cups of coffee per day — under the stimulant section of its Banned Drugs List, whereas cannabis is banned under street drugs. Even though caffeine is a legal substance, it’s still banned due to its effects on athletes, which is why Oshikoya said he believes the possible legalization of cannabis would have no effect on NCAA policy. 

While medical cannabis is legal in Illinois, Loyola is a federally-funded university, which prohibits students on campus from possessing it and having it in their residence halls. All first-year and second-year students are required to live on campus — including athletes, and many athletes choose to live on campus their junior and senior years. 

Because of this, even if the NCAA removed the ban on cannabis, some Loyola student-athletes wouldn’t be able to use it. Watson said due to the nature of cannabis and its benefits, as well as its harms, the athletics department makes sure to educate its athletes as thoroughly as possible. 

“There are negative effects of different kinds of drugs that are prevalent out there,” Watson said.  “We want to make sure that we’ve got smart athletes that are going to make good decisions. If they don’t then they know their performance could be impacted and their ability to compete here at Loyola could as well.”

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