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Going to Pot: Industry Wrestles with Having Events in Marijuana States

16 Dec, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

It’s a conundrum that up until a few years ago, didn’t exist.

The legalization of marijuana in specific states has created a conflict of interest in sports and sports event planners are scrambling to develop and implement policies against the backdrop of a new economy: marijuana tourism.

Part of the problem is a lack of consistency. Some organizations take a hard line. According to USA Today, marijuana remains a banned substance in the NFL, although the league slightly relaxed testing standards in the most recent iteration of its Policy and Program on Substances for Abuse.

The updated policy, noted the article, increased the permitted threshold from 15 nanograms of carboxy THC per milliliter of urine to 35 nanograms.

(The article added, “That's not science-speak for one free joint a week.”)

Down at the college level, and specifically the NCAA level, though, things are a bit more murky.

A second USA Today article noted that it is largely the responsibility of individual athletic departments to administer their own drug testing programs, controlling everything from the frequency of the tests to the severity of the punishments. However, the NCAA has its own year-round testing program – but it only tests for marijuana at bowl games in college football and postseason championships in other sports. And when there is a positive marijuana test in that environment, the punishment is severe and rigid: An immediate half-season suspension.

Probably all but the most hardcore cannabis aficionados can remember to abstain around bowl games, postseason and so forth.

Other sports, however, have drawn up new policies.  According to Marijuana.com, the Electronic Sports League, which coordinates many virtual competitions, just announced that it will begin drug-testing gamers.

“As the world’s largest and oldest e-sports organization, ESL has an ongoing commitment to safeguarding both the integrity of our competitions and that of e-sports as a whole,” the league wrote in an article on its website.

And marijuana use is growing in general. An April article in The Guardian noted that recent figures from drug-testing company Quest Diagnostics show that positive results for marijuana use in the workforce rose 6.2 % in 2013. This contributed to the first rise in positives for overall drug testing since 2003. In the two states that legalized recreational marijuana use before the report was issued, the increase was even more pronounced: in Washington, use was up by 23%, and rose by 20% in Colorado. As of the time of the article, 23 states had legalized medical marijuana use, and four states and Washington, DC, had legalized recreational use.

That leaves employers – and team managers – trying to balance two extremes: tightening policies on positive test results to keep users out of the ranks, or loosening them to avoid driving away qualified individuals.

"Across all walks of life and in every profession, people smoke (marijuana). This is no secret, and pro sports are not exempt," Rex Chapman, who played 12 years in the NBA, told a writer at the Denver Post. "But employers deserve and pay for A-plus employees. There is a time and place for everything. As a member of a team, guys owe it to their teammates to put their best foot forward."

Planners of sports events who seek to create their own limitations will have a hard time finding one particular ruling, and some groups, even at high levels, have lax standards. Winter Olympic athletes, for example, are all but given a free pass for smoking marijuana while out of competition. And the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2013 increased the threshold for a positive marijuana test tenfold. The NHL, alone among the big four North American professional sports, does not include marijuana among its banned substances.

Planners of youth sports events also find themselves caught in a difficult place. Colorado coaches of high school sports, according to Yahoo! Sports, have worried about the drug infiltrating their teams. While the law declares pot sales illegal to those under age 21, the fact that the substance itself is no longer illegal means it’s far easier to obtain. Some areas have insituted school youth athlete drug testing, including one county in Tennessee.

Colorado high schools are not required to test student-athletes for drugs, according to The Denver Post, and a recent Colorado Department of Education study revealed that marijuana use accounts for a whopping 32 percent of the state's student expulsions.

"It could make coaches worry," Denver Broncos tight end Joel Dreessen, who graduated from Fort Morgan (Colorado) High in 2000 and Colorado State University in 2005, told The Denver Post. "That's one of the deterrents to keep you away from doing something like that -- the fact that it's illegal. Now you're talking about strictly the self-discipline of athletes to not smoke or using any drug, because it's not helpful to me as an athlete. It used to be: a) it was illegal, and b) it's bad for you as an athlete. Now, it's just bad for you as an athlete."

But marijuana tourism, believe it or not, is increasing. Travel Weekly notes that CannaCamp in Durango, Colorado, bills itself as a "170-acre slice of heaven, where recreational marijuana and our traditional Colorado ranch create an unprecedented opportunity for cannabis users to experience the outdoors in a safe environment," according to its website.

Resorts in Aspen, Colorado, acknowledged in an online edition of the Aspen Daily News that marijuana use was going to be a challenging subject for them. Existing rules don’t allow smoking of any kind in guest rooms; therefore, the idea of a ‘pot lounge’ might come into play. But resorts that feature this amenity might not be as marketable to youth sports teams, teams in faith-based conferences – or perhaps to any sports event where planners wish to lower, as much as possible, the risk of exposing athletes to drugs.

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