Parent Action Network’s letter to NCAA regarding Marijuana Testing Policy

June 29, 2023

National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) 

Board of Governors                       

700 W Washington Street

P.O. Box 7110 Indianapolis, 

Indianapolis, IN 46202-6222

Dear NCAA, CSMAS, and Division I, II, and III Leaders and Administrators,

It has come to the attention of the Parent Action Network, an affiliate of Smart Approaches to Marijuana focused on supporting family members whose loved ones have been impacted by marijuana, that the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS) has signaled its support for the removal of marijuana from the NCAA’s list of banned substances. With respect, we urge you to reject the CSMAS’ recommendation to remove marijuana from the NCAA’s list of banned substances.

Although the CSMAS claimed its rationale for the removal of cannabis from the list of banned drugs was “largely informed by the December 2022 Summit on Cannabinoids in College Athletics,” its rationale is flawed. For instance, they claimed marijuana is not capable of being a performance-enhancing drug. However, this point has been refuted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the organization that determines which substances can be used in the Olympics and other international competitions. WADA upheld its ban on the in-competition use of cannabinoids as recently as September 2022, meaning there will be a discrepancy between the drug policies in place for college athletes who compete in the NCAA and in the Olympics.

The physical and psychoactive effects of marijuana raise the possibility that it can be used to enhance an athlete’s performance, though these effects may not impact all sports equally. For instance, researchers found that “participants who reported using marijuana to improve sports performance tended to compete in high level (national and international level) winter sports including skeleton, bobsled and ice hockey”––most notably, Ross Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana after winning the gold medal in the men’s giant slalom in the 1998 Olympics. Huestis et al. found that “cannabis is presented as a drug that has significant positive effects in sports, such as improvement of vision for goalkeepers and muscle relaxation.” And the New York Times reported that “World Archery, the international federation for the Olympic sport of archery, bans alcohol from competitions because it could help to steady an archer’s hand. Cannabis could potentially offer a similar advantage in sports that require such feats.”

Even if an athlete claims that his or her use of marijuana is only for recreational purposes and that it has no effect on performance, its use will continue to draw criticism. A 2018 study in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine found, “there is a perception among some athletes that cannabis use may have beneficial effects.” Researchers also found, “a common rationale for use [by athletes] appears to be to enhance sports performance.” As such, the appearance of marijuana’s performance-enhancing effects, even if they are negligible in some cases, will cause athletes to claim its users are given an unfair advantage.

More generally, we are concerned about the message the NCAA’s policy would send to impressionable youth across the nation. A 2017 report by the National Academy of Sciences reviewed more than 10,000 peer-reviewed academic articles and concluded that marijuana use is connected to a number of problems, including: respiratory problems; mental health issues (like psychosis, social anxiety, and thoughts of suicide); increased risk of car accidents; progression to and dependence on tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs; learning, memory, and attention loss (possibly permanent in some cases); and low birth weight. Moreover, nearly 1 in 3 past-year users are estimated to have a cannabis use disorder, also known as addiction to marijuana. If the NCAA were to remove marijuana from its list of prohibited substances, many more athletes will become users and many more will become addicted to it.

Lastly, the use of drugs by college athletes should be discouraged because it is at odds with the essential values of sport. Huestis et al. argue that “The consumption of cannabis and other illegal drugs contradicts fundamental aspects of the spirit of sport criterion.” Additionally, many impressionable youths aspire to reach the levels of performance of their favorite athletes, often emulating their behaviors. If youth believe athletes use marijuana and can win an NCAA championship, they many may want to begin using the drug themselves. Through this lens, the health risks associated with the use of marijuana will be passed on to those who are influenced by the elite athletes who use it. The NCAA can avoid this cycle by continuing to insist that student-athletes be the standard bearers of good health and be role models who uphold the spirit of sport, which will only be possible if marijuana remains on the list of prohibited substances.

The Parent Action Network is dedicated to supporting families who have suffered the tragic and very real consequences of today’s high-potency marijuana. We give these families a voice to express what they have experienced in the hopes that legislators and leaders like yourselves will make good, evidence-informed decisions regarding marijuana.

Below is testimony from some of our families. These are just a few of the stories, but there are many more. We urge you to consider these stories and potential harms that would be associated with the NCAA’s removal of marijuana from its list of banned substances.

Parent Testimonials

“I am a mother of an NCAA D1 athlete, & another child dx w/ CIP resulting in SZA. My daughter is a scholarship athlete at the University of Michigan. The NCAA dictates how many hours she can practice, where she can train, how much caffeine can she drink (Celsius drinks are a banned substance), and what she can do with visiting recruits.  But now, she can use THC with no fear of being punished by them. Her older brother, a former high school all American swimmer, has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (SZA), triggered from Cannabis Induced Psychosis.  She knows that genetically, she has a high chance of having the same brain vulnerability to cannabis.  For that reason, she abstains.  Most young people, like her brother, do not know if they have the genetic tendency for SZA, the sort triggered by cannabis use, until it is too late for them.

Your job is to protect student athletes, often from those who stand to benefit from their choices, and sometimes, like now, from themselves. By perpetuating the prevailing incorrect opinion that cannabis is harmless to developing brains, including those of student athletes, is doing them a disservice, and I am disappointed in your decision to act in a way contrary to every medical advice available to you”.

Catherine Clark, Parent of NCAA Student Athlete, and another child with SZA

My son’s life was dramatically and irrevocably changed as the result of his decision to use THC products.  In high school, he had top grades in his classes, taking classes such as AP Psychology, physics, and chemistry. He spoke to his class at graduation.  He was kicked out of his PsyD program due to his strange behavior from the psychosis induced by THC products. He tried to get a fresh start some months later in a master’s program, but he started using THC products again, and again he deteriorated and was asked to leave. We found him almost unable to speak; he hadn’t eaten in days; he was wildly paranoid; he was deep in psychosis. That was two years ago. Since then, our whole family has struggled through a scary hellish landscape, with our son being hospitalized multiple times due to substance-induced seizures and psychosis.  Addiction and mental illness have destroyed our son’s dreams. Our family’s dreams, too.  I don’t wish this on anyone. Taking marijuana off the list of NCAA’s prohibited substances would send a strong message that marijuana must be safe and that the NCAA is cool with athletes using it. The outcome will be sad for all the kids who, as a result of the rule change, decide to start using marijuana and end up loving marijuana more than the game, and more than getting a college degree. The NCAA rules on prohibited substances do not exist to punish kids; the rules exist to protect kids.”

Laurie G., Parent of Victim

My brother, Dana Wheelock started using Marijuana in his final year of Medical School, (Jefferson Medical School, PA).  My parents noticed a big change in his academics and were worried that he would not pass his exams in his final year.  Since Marijuana was the only change in his Medical School lifestyle, I directly attribute his use of it with his failing grades.  I don’t think his brain ever recovered from that because he was having a harder and harder time meeting his professional and family obligations in a timely manner.

Andy Wheelock, Brother of Victim

My now-24-year-old son is working mightily to rebuild his life after years of marijuana addiction.  His use intensified when he started college, and he ultimately had to withdraw from his first-choice school after, in his words, “it got really dark, really quickly.” At the start of his freshman year, he was a strong student and a staff writer on the college paper.  By the end of the year, his physical and mental health, along with his grades, had plummeted.  We had some truly frightening experiences. But after four years of treatment, thousands of dollars, and the daily hard work of recovery, my son is sober, attending a small college in Pennsylvania, and playing on its Division III tennis team.  He’d never played tennis before starting lessons two years ago, but tennis and the support of his teammates have become a vital part of his recovery—something that would have been unthinkable if was still using marijuana. Marijuana use is already prevalent on college campuses and is derailing the lives of many students, including athletes.  All of them need to know the facts about the very real risks of today’s high-potency marijuana.  The NCAA’s proposed action to remove marijuana from the list of banned substances for athletes sends the opposite message:  marijuana is safe and no big deal.  That is irresponsible and reckless.

Katie R., Parent of NCAA, Div. III Student Athlete and Victim

Before using THC, my son had no medical or mental health issues. Throughout high school and early college, he was an honors student, athlete (track and cross country) and community volunteer. He started using high-potency THC his junior year of high school and, over the next few years of using, his mental health steadily declined– from irritability to social withdrawal to strange beliefs and fears– until he was eventually hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. He later went on to attempt suicide during a cannabis-induced psychotic episode. Before this happened to my family, I thought it was “just pot;” now I have come to understand that use of high-potency THC products can cause psychosis-spectrum disorders like schizophrenia. Please read the research and listen to those impacted. There is no place for cannabis products in our schools or in our athletics. 

Winnie Stevenson, Parent of Victim

Marijuana set me back in life. In high school and college I was a good student and a student athlete. Using marijuana caused me to be in a constant state of depression where I would rather get high than do anything else. I quit sports because of weed. Eventually I experienced cannabis induced psychosis and attempted to take my own life. Before all this happened to me, I thought weed was no big deal; now I know the truth. 

Tobias B, Former Student Athlete, Age 21

My name is Darryl Rodgers.  I raised two boys who both played high school and college football.  Both boys became Eagle Scouts. The oldest of the two, Chase, played in the NIAA.  The football program he was a part of had no drug-testing program.  My youngest son, Justin, played in the NCAA D2.   

My oldest, Chase, began to experiment with marijuana in his freshman year of college and dropped out by his second semester.  I watched in horror as the kid we knew became someone we didn’t recognize.  He lost all motivation and he rapidly lost weight.  He began to associate with a rough crowd.  We were able to get him into drug treatment and he got better, but he eventually relapsed.  On May 29th, 2014, Chase died in a marijuana-impaired wreck at the age of 20.  The driver later took her own life by setting herself on fire.   

I am happy to report that my youngest son, Justin, never used marijuana. Justin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with good grades and this fall he will be pursuing a Chemistry PhD.  Do you see the difference?  I sure do.  Please carefully consider this decision.  

Daryl Rodgers, Parent of Victim

My daughter Jennifer was everything a mother could wish for. She was beautiful and intelligent and made the most of herself. She received a scholarship to Notre Dame College and she was second team all American in HS in Lacrosse. She also left the team in her senior year to coach a local team (close to her college) of HS athletes at the Notre Dame Cathedral Latin HS.  There, she impacted a young woman’s life by mentoring her through a bullying situation and she credits Jennifer with saving her life. After graduation from college with honors, she had high aspirations in her career and personal dreams only to be cut down by a marijuana impaired driver in the prime of her life. Her death and the death of so many others in this way is a real crime. We have lost so much, and our family suffers daily from her untimely and avoidable death. Something needs to be done before this happens to another innocent person and wrecks another family. Corinne L., Parent of Victim

Speaking as a parent of a NCAA Division I athlete, physician, and clinician scientist, the NCAA has no scientific or medical basis to change its stance on marijuana as a banned substance.  According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), marijuana is a Schedule I substance, “meaning that it has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.1”  

The FDA is our sole arbiter of drug safety and efficacy.  Currently, there are no Schedule I substances approved for use by NCAA Division I athletes.  Marijuana distributors and drug manufacturers have a pathway through clinical trials to establish the safety and efficacy of marijuana.  Until they do, it will remain a Schedule I substance along with drugs such as heroin and LSD.

While there may be vocal groups that advocate for a political solution to make marijuana available to citizens in certain states, the NCAA should align itself with science and federal law.    

Dr. W. Lloyd Clark, MD & Parent of Victim

The NCAA is claiming that “Realigning toward institutional testing and how that testing supports/enhances campus efforts to identify problematic cannabis use” – This means letting colleges handle this. This strategy will “uneven” the playing field.  The NCAA handing down “guidance to the membership about cannabis” will severely impact equity in college sports.  Just like the states themselves, colleges perceive cannabis use differently and deploy different standards/consequences, so a kid in one school may get suspended for a season, ending his/her prospects for professional play, while another may not even be tested.  As such, reasonable consequences for cannabis infractions need to be deployed in every NCAA sport and game commonly, or the NCAA will be responsible for this massive “dis-equity” by lifting the ban.”

Debbie Berndt, Director of Parent Movement 2.0 and Substance Free Athletics

We commend the NCAA for long maintaining a standard of protecting the health and well-being of student-athletes. Again, we urge you to think about the consequences for student athletes, their families, and young fans should you decide to remove marijuana from the list of banned substances.

With urgency, 

Crissy Groenewegen

Crissy Groenewegen 

Director of Parent Action Network

Cell Phone: 703-589-9091