As you might have heard, the US PGA Tour rolled out a new drug-testing program to coincide with the start of the new season in October. In addition to peeing in a cup, we’ll now have our blood inspected for performance-enhancing substances like human growth hormone. Our banned list is being updated to match what’s used for Olympic athletes, and all suspensions for failing tests will now be announced to the public. No more speculating if so and so, who didn’t play a tournament for three months, really hurt his back, or was in fact “quietly suspended” for failing a test.
Sounds much stricter, right? Well, as a player who has smoked pot regularly for the past few years, I’m not worried. In fact, I applaud what the tour is doing.
The devil, you might say, is in the levels. Under the new policy, the amount of marijuana that can be in my system is being raised by a factor of 10. The threshold for failing a test was 15 nanograms but will now be 150 nanograms. How much is that? Marijuana is a tricky drug because it stays in the system for a long time, and bodies process it at different rates. But a doctor friend tells me I could smoke a dozen days per month and possibly stay under the limit. I always drink a lot of water, as being hydrated helps avoid detection.
The tour is following the lead of the International Olympic Committee, which in 2013 raised the limit to 150 nanograms, a threshold I consider much more reasonable. The priority is to prevent athletes from gaining a competitive advantage, not to embarrass them. Among US Tour players, no one cares about recreational drugs. As even regular golfers can tell you, ripping a bowl is going to help you make birdies about as much as chugging a beer. As in, you can delude yourself into thinking a little “swing oil” or “green wax” helps, but in any money game, your opponent would love to see you imbibe.
Have I ever been high in a PGA Tour event? Sure. Haven’t done it often, but if I’m teeing off Sunday near last place with no way to move up the leaderboard meaningfully, I’ll treat myself to making the day a little more fun, or at least different. I’ve smoked beforehand with the other players in my group, too.
Each week the tour randomly tests a number of us. An administrator will be waiting outside the scoring trailer. If you have an existing obligation with a sponsor or the media, you can delay reporting to the “testing area”. Produce a urine sample, and a few days later, you get an e-mail saying you passed. But if your phone rings and the caller ID reads PGA Tour – and you haven’t left a message with the tour office about another matter – you’ve tested positive. It happened to me once.
Because it was my first time failing for a recreational drug, it was a slap on the wrist. I had the option to appeal, but I knew that’d be dumb because then it might go public. I accepted my result, then flew to Charlotte and visited with the tour-appointed psychologist for an hour. I know several players who’ve made the same trip. The dude asks all the typical counselling questions, like how much and how often. I was honest but had the impression he couldn’t have cared less about my answers. We were just going through the motions, establishing a paper trail that the matter had been addressed. I also had to attend three sessions with a counsellor in my city.
Clearly, there’s a cultural shift happening with weed as legalisation spreads, and the more lenient threshold on our tour is a small part. I’m not looking forward to having my blood drawn, but if it catches a few guys trying to get stronger and longer by real cheating, here’s my arm. With the new program, the rumour with our disciplinary policy is everybody’s slate is wiped clean. So if I fail another test for weed, my worst-case scenario would be a flight to Charlotte.
– with Max Adler