For the first time since 1984, when the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race implemented drug and alcohol testing, mushers will be tested for marijuana.
On Wednesday, Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee, said the new rules were implemented after the ITC received a complaint from the Iditarod Official Finishers Club. While the complaint didn't mention Lance Mackey by name, enough chatter had subsequently gotten back to the ITC's board making clear Mackey -- last year's reigning champ and a three-time champion overall -- was the intended target.
Mackey, a cancer survivor, is open about his use of medical marijuana to combat pain. He also uses the prescription drug Marinol, a synthetic form of the plant. With the new rule in place, he's said he will adhere to the race's drug policy, which prohibits all marijuana use. Mackey will suspend use of marijuna and Marinol during the race, according to his wife.
"There are definitely people who would like to beat him," Hooley said at press briefing at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage.
Hooley and the Iditarod Trail Committee said that while there has been a drug policy in place for 26 years, this is the first year a drug-testing program for mushers will be implemented. Hooley added that If a musher wanted to gain an advantage, you'd expect to see it in the dogs, which have been subject to drug testing since 1994. No dogs have ever tested postive. [Note: while the ITC has in the past reserved the right to drug test mushers, it has never done so until this year. A prior version of this story incorrectly stated that some drug tests had previously taken place.]
"Nobody likes a winner," said Mark Nordman, the Iditarod's race marshal, acknowledging those who oppose Mackey's pot use and pushed for race officials to test for mushers for the drug. Still, Nordman said, the race was overdue on implementing a more formal drug policy, adding it will help ensure fair competition.
For the first time in race history, a drug-testing company, Work Safe Inc., will partner with the race. In exchange for sponsorship, Work Safe will drug-test all 71 mushers competing in this year's race, which officially starts Sunday in Willow. Hooley declined to provide specifics on the testing, but said it will occur at some point after the race begins and take place at a single location along the trail.
Results should be available within 48 hours, but the consequences for a musher who tests positive are unclear. According to the Iditarod rules, sanctions would be decided by a panel of three judges, who could issue warnings, fines, time penalties, censure, withdrawal and disqualification.
Updated 03/05/09 at 5:40 p.m.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com