Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado, Washington Presents Challenges for NCAA

Election Day has given new meaning to “Rocky Mountain High” in Colorado.

Voters in Colorado and Washington have approved measures permitting limited, recreational use of marijuana by adults in both states. The watershed initiative means the NCAA, which is in the midst of sweeping legislative changes of its own, must too revisit its stance on how it regulates marijuana use by student-athletes.

Mar 21, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Detail view of the basketball and tournament logo during practice the day before the semifinals of the west region of the 2012 NCAA men

The current rules in place specifically ban the use of marijuana by athletes under its jurisdiction. Those busted for failed drug tests administered by the NCAA are subject to a one-year suspension and subsequent loss of eligibility for that year.

The NCAA crafted those policies, however, at a time when the recreational use of marijuana was illegal in all 50 states. Now that two of those states have flipped on the issue, a universal rule no longer seems applicable.

Can the NCAA still discipline a player for something that’s now legal in the state wherein he plays? That question sits atop the NCAA’s agenda as the governing body returns to the drawing board to discuss possible new, legislative measures.

Recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington will be restricted to adults 21 or older according to the language of the referendum, meaning the new state laws should, for the most part, affect only seniors and some juniors in both states. In effect, student-athletes of age in Colorado and Washington will have state legislation backing their right to smoke pot. Whether the NCAA modifies its rules governing drug use to account for the changes in state law remains unclear.

Don’t count on it though.

As a private entity, the NCAA can regulate its members on the grounds of the organization’s self-established code of conduct. That goes even for cases in which the rules contradict federal, state or local law.

The NBA, operating as a private league, for example, can [and does] stipulate a baseline age requirement that prospective entrants must meet. Although people of any profession are entitled to skip school and earn money whenever they want, the NBA requires that all of its members are at least 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft and are at least one year removed from graduating high school.

Just as businesses and companies in Colorado and Washington may still forbid its employees from using marijuana, the NCAA is likely to do the same. That’s not to say NCAA officials won’t discuss their options at length. It’s just unlikely to result in any drastic legislative change.

I can offer this with relative certainty: Colorado and Washington should see a visible surge in recruiting over the next several years without even having to change their methods or intensify their efforts. If schools from those two states are still struggling to attract talent in light of the new laws, some coaches will be finding their job statuses on the next ballot.

How should the NCAA discipline players from Colorado- and Washington-based schools caught legally using marijuana?

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