Last October, when the NCAA announced that the University of North Carolina would receive no penalties for an academic scandal that modeled the most morally offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports, I penned a tongue-in-cheek obituary for the idea of the “student-athlete.”  I simply couldn’t imagine that the college athletics could sink any lower when it came to protecting student-athletes.

I was wrong.

This week, Auburn University football team cut a recruit for using a substance banned by the NCAA.  C.J. Harris, a promising high school strong safety, had been taking hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) that he had found effective for treating and preventing debilitating seizures caused by epilepsy.

I wrote about CBD a few months ago at this site.  Obviously, NCAA and Auburn officials count themselves among the vast majority of KSR readers who skip over my policy columns to get the scoop on basketball recruiting.  But had they read it, they would have learned some critical points:

  • Hemp is NOT marijuana.  Contrary to most popular coverage of the Harris incident, hemp-derived CBD is NOT medical marijuana.
  • Hemp-derived CBD cannot get you high.  By legal and scientific definition, hemp-derived CBD contains less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the intoxicating chemical compound found in much, much more concentrated dosages in your typical joint or bong.
  • Hemp-derived CBD is safe.  So says an October report issued by the World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence which opined that CBD is safe, well-tolerated, not addictive and not linked with any negative public health concerns.
  • Hemp-derived CBD is federally legal, as long as it is produced under a congressionally-authorized state pilot program, such as the product used by C.J. Harris.

According to press reports, the NCAA has banned CBD because they argue any amount of THC is too much. That’s absurd.  That’s like banning cough syrup because there may be a trace amount of alcohol.  Or banning poppy seed bagels because of the remote connection to heroin.

There’s much anecdotal evidence that many patients suffering from debilitating diseases such as intractable epilepsy have found relief taking CBD.  Until CBD medicines secure the appropriate federal approvals, marketing them for disease remediation is inappropriate. But these products which are sold in health food stores across the country — experts predict a multi-billion dollar industry within a few years — must be made available for families like the Harrises.  And no athlete should be punished for taking a natural food supplement that does not intoxicate nor provide any performance-enhancing advantage.

Unfortunately, CBD has been caught up unfairly in the high-profile debate over legalizing medical marijuana.  Confusion between the two has led to misguided law enforcement actions and public statements.  But just in the past few months, thanks to hemp industry education efforts, officials in Tennessee, Indiana and Wisconsin have overturned prohibitory actions and declared hemp-derived CBD legal for retail sale.  (Kentucky’s law is clear — hemp-derived CBD is legal — thanks to a 2017 statute championed by Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.)

Best yet, there’s a very promising effort in Washington, D.C. to resolve the confusion once and for all.  The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 would permanently remove hemp and hemp-derived products such as CBD from the purview of the Controlled Substances Act — moving beyond the current pilot program regime.  The effort’s top champion is Congress’ most influential and effective legislative strategist: Kentucky’s own Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  McConnell is seeking to attach the Hemp Farming Act to the 2018 Farm Bill, a critical agriculture act which must pass before the previous version expires on September 30.  (Not coincidentally — given the Commonwealth’s enduring hemp history — the companion bill in the U.S. House is sponsored by another Kentuckian, Congressman James Comer, who led the state’s efforts to legalize hemp when he served as our Agriculture Commissioner.)

Too often, when we read news of NCAA fails like this, the most we can do is fire off an angry tweet.

Not this time.  If you care about athletes like C.J. Harris — or are among the millions of Americans who value access to hemp-derived CBD for its various health and wellness benefits — you too can help secure passage of the Hemp Farming Act.

The hemp industry’s trade association — the U.S. Hemp Roundtable — has developed an online portal to empower citizens to lobby their Members of Congress.  It really just takes a few minutes — click here — and even if you don’t know who represents you in Washington, the portal will help you prepare a personalized message and send it directly to your U.S. Senators and Representative.

We might never be able to convince the NCAA to act in the best interests of student-athletes.  But by permanently legalizing hemp, we can take this arrow out of their quiver, and allow the C.J. Harrises of the world to live healthy lives…and not be punished for it.


A New Low for the NCAA