Georgia Tech running back Qua Searcy (1) runs against Pittsburgh linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu (23) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Atlanta. Georgia Tech is considering changing its policy on cannabis and other substances for football players. (Jon Barash, Associated Press)

Georgia Tech sports teams consider changes to policies on marijuana and other drugs

Georgia Tech’s substance-abuse policy has been in place since the 2012-13 academic year. Athletic director Todd Stansbury believes it’s time to take a look at it. He has the backing of his most prominent coaches, Paul Johnson and Josh Pastner. In examining Tech’s policy, which has a “three-strikes” component, the school is joining what he called a national trend.

“We’ve got to remember that we’re educators, so (we should be) coming from a philosophy of education,” Stansbury told the AJC. “That has a lot do with how the policy is set up and really relying on research and the experts.”

Shortly after his hire a year ago, Stansbury was asked by school president G.P. “Bud” Peterson to review all of the athletic department’s policies, including the one governing substance abuse by Yellow Jackets athletes.

While Stansbury said that he felt “pretty good” about the policy, he also said that “you try to make it so that the consequences aren’t punitive and it’s not a ‘gotcha’ type of deal.”

Tech athletes are subject to testing at random, before their season, upon reasonable suspicion and during postseason or championship competition.

Banned substances include illicit drugs, masking agents and steroids. Taking prescription medication without a prescription is also not permitted.

A first offense mandates a meeting with the athletic director and head coach, notification of parents/guardians, a counseling assessment and a treatment plan that is required to be followed. The athlete also is subject to unannounced follow-up testing.

A second offense results in suspension for 20 percent of the athlete’s season and additional treatment and follow-up testing. The consequence for a third offense is permanent suspension from participating in any sport at Tech, along with cancellation of financial aid.

Other ACC schools, such as Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State, have similar programs that dismiss athletes after a third offense, while others permit additional offenses.

The trend nationally is toward more forgiving policies. According to a 2015 Associated Press report, an athlete doesn’t lose playing time at Oregon until a third failed test. At Washington, the consequence for a third positive — which at Tech means dismissal — is a 30-day suspension.

At Virginia, a first offense mandates clearance from the staff sports psychologist, medical director and drug-testing coordinator before an athlete is cleared to compete. A second offense doesn’t necessarily lead to a suspension from competition, but does require a behavioral contract that specifies conditions for continued participation and consequences for failure to abide by them. It typically involved community service, academic responsibilities and team commitments. A third offense doesn’t mandate dismissal, although that’s typically the case, according to Ethan Saliba, Virginia’s head athletic trainer.

Saliba said the goal is deterring drug use and identifying and treating abusers, not punishment.

“We’re not here to hurt kids, is the point,” Saliba said. “If you have those rules and those (punitive) consequences, are you sure that’s helping the kid?”

Johnson said that he has been lobbying to change the policy.

“Times have changed,” he said. “And, to me, there probably ought to be reason to test guys.”

Of different schools’ policies on random testing, “it’s a lot more random at some places than others,” Johnson said.

Pastner said he is in favor of a different set of consequences for testing positive for marijuana vs. other substances, citing its prevalence on college campuses and legalization in certain states. He also proposed the removal of a strike if an athlete passes tests for a prolonged period.

“I don’t want our guys to be smoking marijuana, but I do think there’s opportunities to maybe have it not be as stringent,” he said.

Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech are among ACC schools that have separate provisions for testing positive for marijuana. Clemson has a three-strikes policy, but offers “amnesty” for freshmen who test positive for marijuana (within a certain range of THC levels) as they “may be transitioning to stricter behaviors than those to which they may have been accustomed,” according to its policy, and to provide an opportunity for early intervention. The athlete will not be charged with a positive as long as he or she completes the treatment plan.

Stansbury is cognizant of the shifting perception of marijuana use, which has been legalized for recreational purposes in eight states and Washington, D.C. According to a survey taken in 2016 by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, 39 percent of college students had used marijuana in the previous year, and 22 percent in the past 30 days. According to an NCAA survey taken in 2013, 16 percent of Division I athletes had used marijuana in the previous 12 months.

Stansbury also acknowledged that marijuana continues to be on the NCAA’s banned-substance list, that it is illegal in the state of Georgia and that future employers may test for it.

“We would be negligent if we weren’t trying to steer our student-athletes away from its use,” Stansbury said.

Stansbury said his goal is education, behavior modification and helping Tech athletes make better decisions. If a new policy is created, it will be enacted at a time when the perception of drug use, particularly marijuana, continues to change, as do policies and laws.

“So it’s an incredibly complex set of issues that I think everybody’s trying to get their arms around,” he said.

Information from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)