FAIRBANKS — The Iditarod plans to test mushers for drugs and alcohol in March, a change that many mushers don’t have a problem with — unless one asks three-time champion Lance Mackey.
“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 brought about jealousy from some fellow competitors.
“It isn’t the reason I’ve won three years in a row,” said Mackey, though he concedes that marijuana helps him stay focused during the nearly 10-day race.
Now Mackey will have to change his ways or risk disqualification. Aaron Burmeister, a member of the Iditarod’s board of directors, said the Iditarod Official Finishers’ Club has been requesting for years that mushers be drug tested.
“It’s time,” said Burmeister, a 12-time Iditarod finisher from Nenana.
The Iditarod has had a policy regarding drug and alcohol use since 1984, said Stan Hooley, executive director for the Iditarod Trail Committee. But he called it “fairly informal” and said to his knowledge mushers have never actually been tested. The Iditarod finally will enforce the rule for the 2010 race, Hooley said.
“Where during a race (we will test) has not yet been finalized,” Hooley said by phone on Monday. “It might be random. It might be a group of mushers at a specific checkpoint.”
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, he added.
The bulk of the policy has been determined, Hooley said. That includes who will do the testing (the Anchorage company WorkSafe Inc., as a sponsor and at no cost to the Iditarod); what the prohibited list is (it includes marijuana, amphetamines, narcotics and opiates including codeine); and the criteria for a therapeutic use exemption.
“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 began signing up for the race under the new rules, which are published on the race’s Web site, in June and last month were sent a letter that stated the entire rule and included the recently approved list of prohibited drugs.
“I would be surprised if mushers weren’t aware of it,” Hooley said, adding that he has gotten no feedback from mushers — positive or negative.
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.
Reasons for testing
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 offered reasons justifying drug testing for humans as well.
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,” said Steer, adding that he does not do drugs and is “ambivalent” about the rule.
Burmeister, a new father who is skipping this year’s race from Willow to Nome, said “We’re role models to kids all over the country. As professional athletes we need to step up to the plate.”
The driving force for the changed policy was the IOFC, which meets twice a year — at the opening sign-up in June in Wasilla and again after the race finish in Nome. It was the club’s recommendation that Iditarod officials acted on, Hooley said.
The issue has come up at club meetings for the last five years, Burmeister said.
“I’ve heard no people speak up against it at all,” he said, adding that 50 or more mushers attend some meetings.
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 also is the secretary/treasurer of the club.
Zirkle is not 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, Zirkle 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 Iditarod depends on who is asked.
“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 during the race, and likely before it so they can rid a banned substance from their bodies.
Mushers point to marijuana as the only noticeable drug being taken. Steer said he has smelled and seen marijuana on the trail but does not believe it helps or hinders a musher’s dog care.
“I’ve never seen a musher gain a competitive advantage,” Steer said.
Distance mushing is a sport where sleep deprivation is prevalent, and prohibited drugs like methamphethamine could help keep a musher alert and awake. Coming off of the high could be a problem, however.
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.
Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, who won the 2009 Yukon Quest and was second in last year’s Iditarod, had to dig the recent letter from the Iditarod out of the garbage when asked about it.
“I couldn’t think of functioning out there with any of it,” Schnuelle said, adding that he read the fine print closely to make sure he didn’t accidentally take a banned product like phencyclidine. “Most of those things, I don’t even know what the hell they are.”
But everyone knows what marijuana is. The drug is illegal under federal law, but Alaska law allows for personal possession of up to 1 ounce, provided the use occurs at home.
Marijuana is evident in mushing, but not to an excessive degree, Zirkle said, adding that she does not use it.
“I can’t say I’ve noticed it (in mushing) any more than in normal Alaskan life,” said Zirkle, who said she takes nothing more than caffeine during the 1,112-mile Iditarod that lasts more than two weeks for the slowest mushers.
The 1,000-mile Yukon Quest between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon, typically draws about a third of the mushers compared to the Iditarod and has nothing specifically in its rules about drug use for humans.
“No, we have not had that discussion, not that it’s an invalid one, mind you,” Eric Buetow, part of the Quest’s six-member rules committee, said just prior to the 2009 race.
However, there is a catch-all statutory compliance rule that reads “any musher who violates a state, territorial, national or international law while in the race may be disqualified if convicted.”
Mackey will comply
Several individuals — both for and against the drug policy — declined to be interviewed on the record because of the potentially controversial topic, but Mackey is not among them. The issue of mushers smoking on the trail is irrelevant because it hasn’t affected anyone’s race, he said.
And 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 IOFC. Instead, Mackey contends he is being targeted by some competitive mushers.
“People are just jealous of what I’ve accomplished,” Mackey said.
Mackey claimed victory in the Iditarod from 2007-09 and the Quest from 2005-08 and is entered in both races again this year. Once for each race, he has been honored with the prestigious award for the best dog care.
Despite his medical marijuana clearance, Mackey said he will not pursue the Iditarod’s therapeutic use exemption. There is no certainty Mackey could overcome that restrictive clause and get an exemption anyway.
Instead, Mackey said he will race clean and expects to excel.
“If I don’t smoke all the way to Nome, I’ll do as good or maybe even better,” he said.
Mackey did say that marijuana can aid his performance.
“I think it just helps me stay awake and focus on what I’m doing,” Mackey said, adding that marijuana also helps his appetite.
Mackey said mushers will adhere to the rule because no one wants to jeopardize the chance to earn prize money. He won a new truck and $69,000 last year.
“I’ll bet you 10-to-1 that there’s no positive results,” he said.
Assuming he is asked to, Mackey will provide a urine sample just like the others.
“I’m going to pee in their little cup,” he said. “And laugh in their face (when the test comes back negative).”