Mushers to be tested for drugs during 2010 Iditarod

December 5, 2009 

Three-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey admits to marijuana use on the trail in the past but will abstain due to the new rules.


FAIRBANKS -- The Iditarod plans to test mushers for drugs and alcohol in March, a change many mushers have no problem with -- but one that three-time champion Lance Mackey scoffs at.

"I think it's a little bit ridiculous," Mackey said Wednesday night from his home near Fairbanks after a training run. "It is a dog race, not a human race. It (using a drug) doesn't affect the outcome of the race."

Mackey, a throat cancer survivor who has a medical marijuana card, admits to using marijuana on the trail and thinks his success has made some of his competitors jealous.

"It isn't the reason I've won three years in a row," said Mackey, though he concedes marijuana helps him stay awake and focused during the 1,100-mile race that takes winners nearly 10 days to complete.

Now Mackey will have to change his ways or risk disqualification. Drug testing will be a part of next year's race, said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee, although officials hav en't yet decided who will get tested or when or where.

"It might be random. It might be a group of mushers at a specific checkpoint," he said.

Aaron Burmeister, a member of the Iditarod's board of directors, said the Iditarod Official Finishers' Club has requested for years that mushers be drug tested.

"It's time," said Burmeister, a 12-time finisher from Nenana.

The Iditarod has had a drug and alcohol policy since 1984, Hooley said. But he called it "fairly informal" and said to his knowledge mushers have never been tested. The Iditarod finally will enforce the rule for the 2010 race, he said.

Mushers probably will not be informed in advance when and where they will be tested, Hooley said. Urine samples will be sent to a lab in the Lower 48 with about a 48-hour turnaround for results.

Anchorage company WorkSafe Inc. -- a race sponsor -- will do the testing at no cost to the Iditarod. Drugs on the prohibited list include marijuana, amphetamines, narcotics and opiates including codeine, with exemptions available for mushers who use prohibited drugs therapeutically.

"I expect at one checkpoint the top 20 or 30 teams will have to do a pee test," musher Zack Steer of Sheep Mountain said. "I would hope that everybody comes back negative."

Back in May, an expanded Rule 29 ("Use of Drugs and Alcohol") was approved at an ITC board of directors meeting, with only board members John Handeland and Jim Palin voting no. Mushers signed up for the race under the new rules, which are published on the race's Web site, in June and again last month they were sent a letter that stated the entire rule and the list of prohibited drugs.

Previously, mushers were subject to testing under reasonable suspicion from a race official or on a random basis. Now the circumstances include "a random group or all mushers on a date or dates to be determined within 30 days of the start of the race" and "the first fixed number of mushers who arrive at a stated checkpoint."

"Failure of a drug test will result in disqualification," Hooley wrote in an e-mail to the Daily News-Miner.

Refusing a test or adulterating a test specimen is also grounds for disqualification, according to the rule.

As for alcohol, the rule states, as it did before, that 0.04 blood-alcohol content -- half the legal driving limit in Alaska -- is a violation. That would trigger an unspecified discipline where the race marshal could use his discretion, Hooley said.


When it comes to dogs, the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest have for many years tested for a lengthy list of prohibited substances. Hooley and mushers think it's time to test humans too.

Safety of the dogs is a race priority, and using drugs can adversely affect hand-eye coordination and motor skills, Hooley said.

Steer, a member of the Iditarod Rules Committee that he said "rubber-stamped" the expanded rule, said many professional sports have drug-testing programs and that the Iditarod is merely following suit.

"If you want to be judged as a world-class event, then that's what you do," he said.

The driving force for the changed policy was the Finishers' Club, which recommended action. The issue has come up at meetings for the last five years, said Burmeister, who said meetings sometimes draw more than 50 mushers.

Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers said enforcing a drug policy has been on the front burner for a relatively small number of mushers.

"For a few people and a few mushers, it's a really big deal," said Zirkle, who is the secretary/treasurer of the Finishers' Club.

Zirkle isn't convinced the Iditarod will actually test in 2010. At the mandatory mushers meeting before the 2009 start, the race marshal announced the Iditarod would be testing during the race but didn't, she said.

"It's not a big shocker that they're saying it again," Zirkle said. "Maybe they will, maybe they won't. That's a gamble mushers may have to take."

Hooley said no unfounded scare tactics are being used.

"It is something we definitely plan to do," he said.


How prevalent drugs are in the 1,100-mile Iditarod race depends on who you ask.

"We don't know. We don't believe (they are)," Hooley said. "This effort will answer that question of what, if anything, is being used."

Or it may just force those who have used drugs to abstain before and during the race.

Mushers say marijuana is the only noticeable drug being used. Steer said he has smelled and seen marijuana on the trail but doesn't think it helps or hinders a musher's dog care.

"I've never seen a musher gain a competitive advantage," Steer said.

Sleep deprivation is prevalent in distance mushing, and prohibited drugs like methamphethamines could help keep a musher alert and awake. But Burmeister and Steer said use of those drugs, or opiates that could be used as pain killers, are merely rumors. Neither has seen evidence of their use during the race.

Alaska law allows for personal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, provided the use occurs at home. Marijuana is evident in mushing, but not to an excessive degree, Zirkle said.

"I can't say I've noticed it any more than in normal Alaskan life," she said.

The 1,000-mile Yukon Quest between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon, has nothing specifically in its rules about drug use for humans. There is a catch-all rule that reads "any musher who violates a state, territorial, national or international law while in the race may be disqualified if convicted."


Mackey says the issue of mushers smoking on the trail is irrelevant because it hasn't affected anyone's race.

Furthermore, he said, what he does in his time is his business.

"The Alaska lifestyle, you can do just about anything you want if you're not bothering anybody," he said. "You have a little more freedom in this state and smoking pot is kind of a common thing here in Alaska."

Mackey doesn't blame the Iditarod board for creating the new policy at the behest of the Finishers' Club. Instead, he contends he is being targeted by other mushers jealous of his three straight Iditarod titles and the four Quest titles he won from 2005-08. He has been honored once at each race with the prestigious award for the best dog care.

"People are just jealous of what I've accomplished," he said. "... If I don't smoke all the way to Nome, I'll do as good or maybe even better."

Despite his medical marijuana clearance, Mackey said he will not pursue the Iditarod's therapeutic use exemption, nor will he jeopardize his shot at another new truck and $69,000 in prize money by smoking during the race.

And assuming he is asked to, Mackey said he will provide a urine sample if asked.

"I'm going to pee in their little cup," he said. "And laugh in their face (when the test comes back negative)."

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