College athletes at more than 30 schools in the Power Five conferences face more forgiving penalties for marijuana offenses than they did a decade ago, according to a recent investigation by The Associated Press.

College FootballThose schools account for roughly a third of the members of the Power Five, which includes the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast, and Southeastern conferences, along with Notre Dame. Not all schools provided information to the AP, so the number with reduced penalties could be higher.

The lesser punishments cover both marijuana and other illicit recreational drugs, the AP reported. In 2014, the NCAA halved its penalty for athletes who test positive for recreational drugs at championship games. The association’s chief medical officer has also pushed for a stop to recreational drug screening.

Public perceptions towards marijuana use changing

According to the AP, some of the country’s largest universities, such as Auburn and Oregon, have already lifted some of the toughest punishments on marijuana use, even as public attitudes toward the drug lighten. Use among the general public has doubled over the last 10 years. Four states allow cannabis for recreational use while more than 30 others allow some form of medicinal marijuana.

The AP investigation examined the policies at 57 of the 65 schools in the Power Five. Twenty-three of those campuses have either lowered penalties for recreational drug use or increased the number of times an athlete may test positive before those penalties apply. Another 10 schools impose less serious penalties on marijuana consumption than on other drug use.

Shorter suspensions and fewer dismissals

Marijuana LeafAthletes at five Pac-12 schools face shorter suspensions than in the past, and fewer dismissals. At the University of Utah, for instance, three failed test results formerly led to dismissal, whereas now they mean no more than a half-season suspension (still a serious penalty).

“It’s a moving target, and we have to find that balance between being too punitive and not punitive enough, and making sure that we help people that have a problem,” said Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill.

No student athletes in the United States are openly allowed to use marijuana. Even in states such as Oregon and Washington, where the drug is legal, athletes are banned from smoking it. But penalties are lighter than in most other places: In Oregon, suspension doesn’t apply until an athlete fails three drug tests, while at Oregon State, it takes four failed tests to get kicked off the team. At the University of Washington, meanwhile, a third failed test means only a 30-day suspension, compared to a previous suspension of one year.

“The change was intended to make the policy more rehabilitative,” said Washington spokesman Carter Henderson.

Performance enhancers and recreational drugs require different approaches

Several schools, including Northwestern, Pittsburgh, Penn State, USC, Syracuse, Wake Forest, and Vanderbilt, didn’t provide the AP with copies of their drug policies. There are no drug tests at Stanford University, and while Illinois has actually increased its marijuana penalties, they’re less severe than the penalties for other illicit drugs.

At least one NCAA official, Dr. Brian Hainline, is behind the move toward reduced punishment. Hainline, the association’s medical chief, told the AP the group would do better to focus on athletes caught using performance-enhancing drugs and let schools handle other substances.

“The most important thing that I can’t emphasize enough is that as a society, we have to make a clear distinction between recreational drug use and cheating,” Hainline said. “I really believe that they require two different approaches. One is more nuanced, and one is hard core.”


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