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Is there a loophole in AFL's drug testing?

AFL Players Association CEO Matt Finnis responds to findings which suggest Collingwood players are taking advantage of a drug testing loophole.

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A LOOPHOLE allowing AFL players to avoid a drug strike by self-reporting is likely to be closed  on Wednesday with the AFL also expected to consider a push to significantly increase hair testing of players.

The AFL’s drug summit is expected to address the issue of self-reporting by adopting one of a range of measures, such as allowing players only one case of self-reporting or significantly increasing the medical counselling players  must undertake after volunteering they had taken drugs.

The summit is also likely to consider a push to significantly expand the number of hair tests undertaken.  About 100 tests are done at the end of the off-season  to better target players for tests during the season.

A failed hair test does not constitute a failed drug strike under the AFL’s illicit drug policy.

These changes are among the measures likely to  be put by different parties to Wednesday’s summit of AFL executives, club chiefs, medical officers and others, including player representatives, at Etihad Stadium.

Hawthorn, the only club to have a player record three drug strikes, will be among those pressing for clubs to be informed earlier of players who fail drug tests.

Hawks president Andrew Newbold also said the club backed changes to close the loopholes that had reportedly been exploited by some players but urged that such measures should only be taken with a renewed focus on welfare, pastoral care and a determined look at the  causes of drug use.

He said it was now clear clubs were not interested in discovering at-risk players so they could punish or sack them and therefore the argument against informing clubs of the failed drug tests was diminished.

But the AFL Players Association is likely to resist the push for earlier notification as it believes anonymity to be a cornerstone of the players’ decision to voluntarily sign up to the illicit drugs policy.

The more people who knew of identities, the more likely the players’ anonymity would be breached.

Newbold echoed the sentiment of most club presidents in calling for clubs to be told sooner. Clubs are told only after a player records a third strike.

Players have self-reported drug use and thus avoided a drug strike as part of the policy preference not to punish players seeking help. And as reported  by Fairfax Media in June last year, the present system makes it unlikely a player would fail a third strike, because when they are on two strikes and  in the care of a doctor they don’t have to undergo AFL-sanctioned drug tests.

‘‘The earlier clubs are told the better, and making changes to the system of policing to make it more onerous, particularly through the summer, is a great policy mechanism but does not get to the heart of prevention,’’ Newbold said.

‘‘Players are coming out of cloistered environments at school where everyone has been telling them how good they are and that they are going to be drafted, then they arrive at clubs and in some ways they are in as cloistered an environment.

‘‘They are probably the most highly regulated young men in society and yet they are young men on good incomes and who are often risk-taking personalities.’’

Newbold said the evidence was that the most dangerous time for player drug use was in the off-season. ‘‘It’s more the off-season, it’s not so much, ‘I am going out tonight and taking drugs because I can’t be seen having a drink’.’’

Newbold said that clubs now invested heavily in pastoral care and player welfare and had long gone past the idea of being eager to punish and sack players.

Hawthorn became the first and as-yet only club to have a player record three drug strikes when Travis Tuck failed a third drug test in 2010 after being found by police under the influence of drugs.

Tuck, who was 22 at the time, was banned by the AFL for 12 weeks and fined $5000. The AFL tribunal took into account the fact he was suffering from depression.