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The Path to Pot: Even if NYS says yes, some institutions will still say no

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo set the wheels in motion Monday to debate the legalization of recreational marijuana use in 2019. But even if New York State lawmakers ultimately say yes, there will remain some institutions where adult casual use remains banned, while some will be faced with the question of how to regulate its use among its membership.

The body overseeing collegiate sports in the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, subjects student-athletes to numerous regulations designed to protect the integrity of amateur, academic and fair play. That includes a lengthy list of banned substances, including a category known as "street drugs." Marijuana is on that list.

"Anything that has marijuana in it is illegal, according to the NCAA," said Dr. Brian Bratta, Director of Sports Medicine for the University at Buffalo’s Athletics Department.

That includes medical marijuana. Athletics programs watch closely the student-athletes' pain management, including the drugs taken to ease discomfort. Even drugs most people buy over-the-counter are managed closely.

"The physicians we work with are very well-versed in their use of prescription medications," Bratta said. "Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen and aspirin can be utilized but that is also monitored and regulated as well."

The NCAA tests athletes at its championships, year-round at Division I schools like UB, and at Division II level schools like Daemen College. Learning institutions may also conduct their own testing.

One of the concerns is the risk of second-hand exposure. While student-athletes may not be allowed to use recreational marijuana, they may be in the presence of others who will. There's also the likelihood of some facing temptation by non-athletes to perhaps sneak a hit here or there.

"We work with the coaches and create an educational process to let them understand that this is something the NCAA has said cannot be in your system at all," Bratta said. "If it is, that's a problem."

Those caught with marijuana in their system could face the loss of one year of NCAA eligibility. Full-time student-athletes are allowed a maximum four seasons within five years.

Another institution where marijuana consumption is off-limits is the military. WBFO first contacted the New York Army National Guard for comment on marijuana policy but, as it was explained this is a broader-picture issue, was referred to the Pentagon Press Office. The latter office confirmed the official position on marijuana use as forbidden by its enlistees and officers but did not offer any replies to questions regarding the risks of marijuana exposure in the recruitment process.

The Army Times reported in August of this year that many senior Army leaders recognize that if a civilian was allowed to use marijuana before deciding to enlist, and if they understand that it’s no longer allowed after they join, many would consider waivers. Five hundred of them were issued in 2017.

There's also the question of marijuana use and industries where employees are entrusted with the opreation of heavy equipment or with the lives of customers. Airline pilots are responsible for both but the question that remains answering is how federal air regulators may set policy for marijuana consumption by its pilots. How may these rules differ from alcohol consumption?

In Canada, where legal recreational marijuana began in October, airline pilots may not consume alcohol anywhere from eight to 12 hours before operating a plane. An airline industry advocacy group based in Ottawa says the industry has been left by the government to take care of its own rules regarding marijuana.

"The government said if you're unfit to fly, you shouldn't be flying," said John McKenna, president and chief executive officer of the Air transport Association of Canada. "But they haven't said anything like 'you cannot have smoked for two months or six weeks or whatever. Nothing like that."

Air carriers, McKenna told WBFO, are setting their own policies. But the ATAC, which represents several carriers, mostly regional servers, prefers airline pilots be entirely forbidden from consuming marijuana.

Such a policy, McKenna concedes, is expected to be challenged in court by those who argue the ban would infringe on privacy rights.

"We're willing to take that risk, because we want to be clear that we don't tolerate the consumption of marijuana any time for a pilot, whether he's on duty or off-duty, or any other person that's in a safety-sensitive position," McKenna said. 

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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