With the increase in athletic competition often comes an increase in methods to find a competitive edge. Prior to this year’s Olympic games in Rio, several international athletes tested positive for performance enhancing drugs by doping. As a result, the International Olympic Committee, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and numerous other international sports federations have called for more anti-doping action, including an increase in investigations to ensure the integrity of future Olympic games. The recent increase in testing and investigations of athletes on the international level has trickled down to the collegiate level. This makes sense given many Olympians hail from the collegiate ranks.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) governs intercollegiate athletics, as well as drug testing for college student-athletes of its member institutions. All NCAA member institutions must abide by NCAA bylaws. Within the bylaws are rules governing the use and prohibition of performance enhancing drugs by student athletes.

NCAA member institutions and conferences often create and implement their own drug testing programs, which can vary considerably. Under NCAA bylaws, the first positive test for a performance-enhancing drug results in an automatic loss of one year of an athlete’s eligibility, and a second positive test results in a loss of all remaining eligibility. Positive drug tests for “street drugs”—e.g., heroin, marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and synthetic cannabinoids—result in lesser penalties, beginning with a loss of 50 percent of the season. If a student-athlete is found to have tampered with a drug test, he or she will receive a two-year suspension from competition.

The NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS) provides guidance and makes recommendations to the NCAA on drug testing policies.

At CSMAS’s June 2016 meeting, it elected to explore a new drug-testing consent form that would require student-athletes to acknowledge receipt of the list of banned drugs and an advisory on the risk of using nutritional and/or dietary supplements. Presumably, this change would make it more difficult for student-athletes to claim that they were unaware that certain drugs were banned or that nutritional supplements might contain banned substances. Moreover, CSMAS determined that there should be no recording, in any form, of NCAA drug-testing specimen collections because of confidentiality and privacy concerns.

Also, CSMAS declined to create a new banned drug class that would include meldonium, a drug used to increase blood flow to the organs. Meldonium was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in January 2016. It has been reported that a number of high-profile international athletes have used meldonium, including tennis champion Maria Sharapova, who was suspended from tennis for two years, and swimmer Yulia Efimova, who competed in the Rio Olympics.

Recently, the NCAA has faced criticism regarding the testing and penalties for the use of “street drugs,” and marijuana in particular. Studies have shown that marijuana may actually hinder athletic performance. According to one 2014 NCAA study, 22 percent of NCAA athletes reported using marijuana.

Despite the growth of marijuana use by student athletes, the CSMAS elected to continue to ban it and other performance-altering substances. These banned drugs, now called “illicit drugs,” will still continue to include heroin, marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and synthetic cannabinoids, among other substances.

However, with further state-level recreational legalization of marijuana—on the ballot for California voters in November 2016— the issue of state law permissive use versus NCAA bylaw prohibition is likely to continue to dominate collegiate drug-testing discussions.

Best Practices for NCAA Member Institutions

Below are a few practical tips NCAA member institutions may want to consider implementing:

  • Develop a written policy on drug and alcohol use, covering drug testing policies and medication disclosure.
  • Ensure that student-athletes are familiar with the list of NCAA-banned drugs and understand that dietary supplements may contain banned substances.
  • Make sure that a medical review officer is in place to address any positive results.
  • Educate student-athletes and athletic staff on the implementation of all drug testing policies.