MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Players testing positive for marijuana in the mighty Southeastern Conference do not face the one-year suspension that comes from getting busted by the NCAA.
In the most successful league of the BCS era, players routinely get third, fourth and even fifth chances before they're booted from the team; failed drug tests administered by the NCAA result in the automatic suspension.
The finding comes from an Associated Press examination of the drug policies at 11 current members of the SEC. Vanderbilt, a private institution, declined to make its rules available.
All the SEC schools the AP looked at had far more lenient drug policies than the NCAA, though the penalties varied widely.
The NCAA conducts its own drug checks and leaves testing policies to the schools, but the governing body released a report in January saying that more than a quarter of college football players admitted in 2009 that they smoked marijuana in the previous year.
Just how many suspensions for recreational drug use are handed down in the SEC or any NCAA-affiliated conference is unknown because privacy rules prohibit schools from disclosing positive tests. They're not even required to tell the NCAA.
However, several SEC standouts have been in the news recently.
Former Auburn running back Mike Dyer testified in an April court case involving a teammate that he consistently smoked synthetic marijuana during his Tigers career, LSU star Tyrann Mathieu was suspended one game for violating the team's drug policy last year and Georgia All-America safety Bacarri Rambo could miss a game or two next season for failing a drug test.
Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork, who was hired in March, is hoping to strengthen his school's policy by the middle of the summer. Currently, a second positive test at Mississippi might simply mean the loss of free tickets for family and/or community service.
A third positive requires suspension for three games or events. Subsequent violations call for three games tacked onto that, though the athletic director and head coach can dismiss the athlete or opt not to renew the scholarship.
"We need to tighten it up quite a bit and come up with a good policy for everyone involved," Bjork said.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said a conference-wide standard has been discussed at least twice during his 10-year tenure but that league members have opted against one to this point.
Drug testing was briefly discussed at the SEC meetings this week in Destin, Fla. Presidents and athletic directors agree action needs to be taken and say it will be a priority at their meetings in October once they have gathered more conference-wide data.
In the meantime, schools are left to handle situations.
"The issue is to make sure that our institutional drug testing programs are adequate," Slive said before the meetings. "This is something that comes up on a regular basis."
Athletes at Georgia and Auburn who test positive for marijuana a second time face the prospect of losing half their season to suspension.
Arkansas and Florida, by comparison, suspend athletes for 10 percent of a season for a second positive.
The NCAA said 90 percent of Division I schools have their own drug-testing programs, while the governing body tests some 13,500 athletes a year. Mary Wilfert, the NCAA's associate director of health and safety, said the NCAA's testing is focused more on performance-enhancing drugs.
"The NCAA is not in the position to provide intervention throughout the year, but schools are," Wilfert said. She said schools rely on their own needs and philosophies to set their drug testing policies, which are "complementary" to those of the NCAA.
Wilfert said Football Bowl Subdivision teams are tested at least once, sometimes twice a year by the NCAA.
The SEC schools' policies focus more on recreational drugs, with five of the 11 having stronger penalties for anything beyond marijuana.
Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi State are the only schools with suspensions for athletes' first positive test for marijuana, 10 percent of the season for each. Kentucky includes possible dismissal for each of the first two positives, with a half-season suspension for No. 2.
The policy variations continue beyond the first positive test.
Six of the schools have a three-strike-and-you're-out method. At Florida, you might get a fifth strike. At Arkansas, four. And Ole Miss doesn't have a defined number.
The use of recreational drugs is a growing concern around all of college football.
The NCAA report released in January found 26.7 percent of football players said they smoked marijuana in 2009 — the latest year available — 5 percentage points higher than in 2005.
Most SEC schools have had to deal with the problem.
Even the comparatively stiff penalties at Georgia haven't been completely effective as deterrents. The Bulldogs might open next football season without two defensive backs.
Bulldogs cornerback Branden Smith was charged with marijuana possession in March. Rambo failed a drug test after, his high school coach said, inadvertently eating marijuana-laced brownies on a spring break trip to Florida.
"If you look at other people's policies, ours is much tougher than just about anybody's policy I've seen," Georgia coach Mark Richt said in late March. "Because some people end up with a game suspension or whatever it may be, a kid at another school may do the same thing and their policy maybe doesn't say it has to be that way.
"I don't care what they do, all I'm saying is I think it's important how we handle it and our goal when our guys make mistakes is to find out the truth about it and then discipline it properly."
Dyer, a former Auburn back who has transferred to Arkansas State, took the stand in the trial of the first of four fellow members of the 2010 national championship team charged with armed robbery, allegedly committed after a night of using the drug.
All four were immediately dismissed from the team. Auburn has since updated its drug testing policy to specifically include synthetic marijuana, which was legally sold in Alabama stores until last October.
Florida athletes are suspended for 20 percent of a season for a third positive and 50 percent for a fourth. A fifth means dismissal.
In January, Florida defensive tackle Leon Orr became the sixth Gators player arrested on marijuana charges since head coach Will Muschamp's hiring after the 2010 season. All six cases ended with deferred prosecution.
The program created by Florida's University Athletic Association focuses on education, testing, treatment and deterrence, Gators spokesman Steve McClain said. Each Florida athlete faces one random test each semester while they're in school, anywhere from two to four times a year, McClain said.
The schools' coaches or administrators can often impose stricter penalties.
Alabama allows the athletic director, head coach and its Sports Medicine Committee to determine what, if any, penalty is warranted after a first positive test. The second means the athlete will be sidelined for 15 percent of the season and/or a suspension of up to 30 days, and the third a one-year ban from games.
One observer without ties to the SEC believes it's essential to have an outside organization to police the drug issue and establish uniform methods and policies.
Bob Copeland, athletic director for Canada's Waterloo University, compares the current system to having each country control its own testing for its Olympic athletes.
"There's a lot of value to having third-party experts," said Copeland, who ordered his entire football team tested after a player was arrested for possession and trafficking of anabolic steroids. "They can look at what's called intelligent testing and generally apply that across the nation."
Georgia held a mandatory meeting with every student-athlete before spring break addressing drugs. Athletic director Greg McGarity said a question was raised at a staff meeting this spring: "What else is there?"
"We've got 600 young men and women in our programs," McGarity said. "When someone steps outside the lines, then we have to self-evaluate. Is there more we could have done? But I think at the end of the day it comes down to more accountability for the student-athletes."