Mississippi Rebels and Xavier Musketeers players run by the NCAA logo at mid-court during a 2015 NCAA Tournament game on March 19, 2015 in Jacksonville, Fla. (Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images file)

College athletes and marijuana: Harsh punishments no longer the norm

AP Exclusive: Some of the nation's biggest universities, from Oregon to Auburn, have already eased their penalties for marijuana use as society's views have changed

LINCOLN, Neb. — At least one-third of the Power Five conference schools are not punishing athletes as harshly as they were 10 years ago for testing positive for marijuana and other so-called recreational drugs, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.

The NCAA last year cut in half the penalty for athletes who fail screenings for substances like marijuana at its championship events, and its chief medical officer is pushing for college sports’ governing body to get out of the business of testing for rec drugs altogether. The AP found that some of the nation’s biggest universities, from Oregon to Auburn, have already eased their punishments as society’s views on marijuana use have changed. Marijuana use among U.S. adults has doubled over a decade, according to government surveys, and recreational use is now legal in four states.

The AP analyzed policies for 57 of the 65 schools in the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences, plus Notre Dame.

Of the 57 schools, 23 since 2005 have either reduced penalties or allowed an athlete to test positive more times before being suspended or dismissed. Ten schools have separate, less stringent policies addressing only marijuana infractions.

In the Pac-12, five schools do not suspend athletes for as long as they once did. At Utah, for example, a third failed test used to mean dismissal; now it’s a half-season suspension.

“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,” Utah athletic director Chris Hill said.

Recreational use of pot is allowed for adults in Colorado, Oregon and Washington but is against the rules at Pac-12 schools in those states. At Oregon, an athlete doesn’t lose playing time until a third failed test; at Oregon State, a third failed test used to mean dismissal, but athletes are now given one more chance.

At Washington, a third failed test used to be a one-year suspension but is now just 30 days.

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

Northwestern, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Southern California, Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest did not provide copies of their drug policies despite repeated requests, citing privacy laws. Stanford does not test its athletes. Illinois has a separate pot policy that has become more strict but isn’t as punitive as its policy for drugs like cocaine or heroin.

The Big Ten and Big 12 are the only Power Five conferences that do their own testing in addition to the testing done by the schools and NCAA. Those two conferences punish athletes who test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The Big 12 is the only conference that screens for recreational drugs, but it does not sanction athletes who test positive. Instead, the Big 12 notifies the school of a positive test and leaves any discipline to the school.

Keep reading: In Power Five conferences, see how each school handles marijuana discipline