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NCAA relaxes drug policies to raise THC testing threshold, recommends lower penalties for athletes

The NCAA is recommending divisions adopt a new penalty structure that would prevent student-athletes from losing eligibility so long as they follow management plans.

INDIANAPOLIS — The NCAA on Friday announced major changes to its cannabinoid testing policies, asking divisions to consider adopting lighter penalties for student-athletes who exceed its new, higher THC threshold during drug tests.

The NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports met on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss changes to its THC testing policies for student-athletes, more than quadrupling the threshold of what it considers a positive test from 35 to 150 nanograms per milliliter.

The NCAA said the changes were made to align with new levels set by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The changes took effect immediately and apply to any drug tests the NCAA administered in fall 2021 or later.

Alongside the testing changes, the NCAA is also recommending its divisions to adopt a new, less stringent penalty structure for athletes that do test positive for THC. 

The NCAA is recommending that divisions not revoke an athlete's eligibility to play in most cases unless they fail to follow school-directed management and education plans after their first offense.

On the second offense, the NCAA's recommendation is for the division to still maintain their eligibility with more management and education so long as they were compliant with the school's original education and management plan. If not, the NCAA recommends withholding the athlete from 25% of regular-season play.

On the third offense, the NCAA recommends the same with an increased penalty of being pulled from 50% regular-season play if the athlete didn't comply with the first two plans.

The recommendations would need to be independently adopted division-by-division to take effect.

"Reconsidering the NCAA approach to cannabis testing and management is consistent with feedback from membership on how to better support and educate student-athletes in a society with rapidly evolving public health and cultural views regarding cannabis use," said Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA's chief medical officer. "Marijuana is not considered a performance-enhancing substance, but it remains important for member schools to engage student-athletes regarding substance use prevention and provide management and support when appropriate."

Marijuana is legal either medically or recreationally in most U.S. states as of 2022. It remains illegal in all forms in Tennessee, however, Delta-8 THC -- which is derived from hemp CBD -- is currently legal in the state.

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