Marijuana in CWU athletics

Isaac Hinson and Jacqueline Hixssen

Marijuana has long been banned for collegiate athletes. Marijuana is a legal drug in Washington, but the punishments a student-athlete would face makes the drug virtually untouchable for athletes. 

Logistics behind the policy

CWU athletics participates in the NCAA and must follow their guidelines to remain within the organization. 

According to CWU’s Athletic Director Dennis Francois, the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) and CWU ban marijuana for the better judgment of their athletes.  

CWU’s current marijuana policy for athletes has a three-offense approach. The CWU “Consequences for Infractions of the CWU Substance Use and Personal Conduct Policy” was written by student-athletes from CWU in 2014, according to Francois.  

Former football and soccer players, as well as Francois, visited the Apple Conference, a program put together by the NCAA in California. The students put together a structured outline of all the things CWU needed to start developing, according to Francois.  

“It wasn’t us as an administration developing all of these policies and procedures and urging them to stick with them,” Francois said, “They [students] actually brought it back to the student-athlete advisory committee … They actually developed 90 plus percent of these policies.” 

Policy offense guidelines

If an athlete is caught using cannabis, for the first offense the athlete must have a meeting with their coach and Francois and possibly student conduct sanctions and participate in wellness education.  

If athletes get a second offense, the athlete must meet again with their coach and Francois. They then could lose up to 25% of the season, and per their coach’s discretion, write a letter of apology.  

If the athlete then gets a third offense, they would be subjected to losing 100% of their season and could be dismissed from the program.  

“These are the minimums; we tell our athletes that your coach or your particular program can have higher standards, but they can’t have lower standards than these,” Francois said. 

NCAA Policy Standards

The CWU athletic program follows the NCAA in all their offense terms except for one.  

In an NCAA meeting in late February, the NCAA suggested all schools within their organizations update their penalty structures. 

On the third offense, the NCAA said, “No loss of eligibility if the school provides additional management and education and confirms the student-athlete was compliant with the previous two treatment and education plans.

“However, the student-athlete must be withheld from 50% of regular-season contests if they were not compliant with the previous management and education plan.” 

Upon gaining knowledge of the NCAA’s updated marijuana regulations, Francois said that a tweak in CWU’s policy may be needed to be more in line with the NCAA’s 50% rule.  

“I sent that [NCAA Regulations] to our senior staff yesterday and said, ‘With this information we probably need to revisit our policy,’” Francois said.  

Changes in CWU Athletics policies

The policy the athletes follow today is not the same policy that had always been followed. Prior to the 2014 Apple Conference, the department lacked policies altogether.  

Once marijuana started to normalize throughout Washington, CWU had to create and adjust its alcohol and drug policy. 

“About three years ago, we started looking at this a little differently,” Francois said, “We were missing the educational side of it … We changed our policy to have a better wellness education component.”  

Marijuana can be prescribed by a doctor to individuals to help reduce anxiety, inflammation, pain and more. Student-athletes must opt out of this type of treatment due to the NCAA guidelines, according to Francois.  

“In the NCAA eyes, [medical marijuana] is not on the table,” Francois said. “We make sure our student-athletes know even though it is legal in the state of Washington and or you may have a medical marijuana card, it is a banned substance and not permissible.”

There are 39 states including Washington D.C. that have legalized medical marijuana and 18 states including Washington D.C. legalized recreational marijuana.  

“Things are evolving, especially with the therapeutical use of CBD … They realize it is not necessarily a performing enhancing drug,” Francois said. “It is something we and the NCAA Sports Science Institute is paying attention to, but it is still not legal in every state or in a federal perspective.” 

Despite regulations, a large percentage of students use marijuana, according a study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The study had marijuana use among college students in 2020 at 44%. 

A student-athlete’s experience

“It really hasn’t taken any sort of toll on my ability to play,” an anonymous student-athlete said. “When marijuana is combined with the playing of a sport, obviously, you’re going to see some sort of complication … It slows your mind down … It takes away some ability to make split second decisions.” 

The athlete in question is a self-described “frequent” marijuana user and said they have never played a game while intoxicated, only attended practice. 

“You’re only going to see it if the drug is being used at the moment or immediately prior to play,” the student-athlete said. “You’re not going to see the effects of it if they smoke and they have a game a day later … As long as they’re not smoking excessively, there’s really no downfall … in the sense of a lingering negative toll on play.”

As previously stated, the NCAA adjusted their marijuana related penalties. Athletes no longer automatically lose eligibility to play following a positive test, and the THC threshold to register a positive test was increased from 35 nanograms to 150 nanograms. 

“I definitely see it as a step in the right direction,” the student-athlete said. “I think the guidelines are good, it’s nice to see change … to see more leniency on something that’s legal to these mostly of-age people. People forget that they’re still people, you know.” 

Marijuana is one of the drugs that the NCAA tests for in their drug testing policy. 

“It’s just a waste of time … It’s a continued step in the wrong direction,” the student-athlete said. ”You’re not gonna find any sort of success in testing for a drug that most adults, especially with the demographic of most professional sports players, is used very frequently. You can’t just take people and say ‘You need to be clean as a whistle’ … It’s something that’s legalized and it’s becoming more and more accepted.”