Two-tier system would give minor offenders a second chance.
New Zealand's senior drug tester wants some sports men and women who are caught breaking anti-doping rules to receive warning letters, not suspensions.
It's an approach that will annoy those seeking harsher penalties for transgressors, but in the light of cricketer Jesse Ryder's suspension Graeme Steel, chief executive of Drug Free Sport New Zealand, believes it is worth exploring whether instead of a single threshold at which punishments may be imposed, there should be two.
Steel is no friend to those who seek to cheat to gain an advantage. But he has also seen examples of athletes caught up on a scale out of proportion to the size of an offence. Ryder tested positive for two banned stimulants after taking a weight-loss supplement.
"I would draw two lines, and you do need to be conservative," he said.
"If we see it [a positive reading] that's one point. But if it goes above a higher threshhold that's where you start getting into heavy duty investigating and penalties."
Ryder had been above the World Anti-Doping Agency threshold, just. He was banned for six months, effective until October 19.
"With the amount [of stimulant] Jesse had there was no sense from any of the experts that he'd get any advantage from it on the day," Steel said.
"In Jesse's case [or similar instances] my view is that we could be in a position to write to him and say, 'You've obviously taken something prohibited. It's at a low level. If you do it again you may well get a serious ban'.
"We could handle this better in that way."
That, Steel believes, would have the effect of putting a serious frightener on the athlete and would also be a pragmatic approach to a fraught issue.
He said there has to be a better way of sifting the cases where serious punishment is warranted and those where the athlete has gained no material assistance - in Ryder's case evidently the equivalent of a couple of cups of coffee.
Steel recalled the case of a triathlete several years ago who, after eating poppy seed bread, failed a test for morphine.
"He was ultimately deemed to have no fault. He did not get any ban, but lost his result, prize money and went through hell for months as this unfolded.
"The amount was minuscule and any idea he'd have had any advantage is nonsensical."
Ryder erred on a couple of counts.
First, and he readily admitted this, he didn't go to DFSNZ to get the pills he proposed using tested. He would have been told that although the label didn't immediately raise a red flag he should steer well clear of it.
Secondly, he relied on the advice of one of his support people, trainer and former Wellington fast bowler Stephen Hotter.
In telling Ryder he should be okay using the pills, Hotter stepped outside his area of expertise. It is accepted Hotter's motives were well intentioned but his information poorly provided. The upshot was Ryder took a fall.
Steel says athletes don't necessarily need to be smart to avoid problems, but they do need to accept they're not experts in the area and seek quality advice.
Steel, who has been running the programme since the late 1980s under various names, isn't about to cross swords with Wada, whose foundation board he is on. He respects the difficult job they have to do, but has his own idea about how to change the policing of offenders and he's not advocating removing stimulants from the banned list.
He cites the well-documented case of British cyclist Tommy Simpson, who died on the Tour de France in 1967 climbing the torturous Mont Ventoux. He was loaded with stimulants and died of exhaustion.
Hardline doping is one thing; use of supplements another.
The whole issue of supplements is a minefield, but there are ways to learn where to put your feet.
The Weekend Herald has received a list of dozens of New Zealand's leading athletes, including Olympic representatives, and the supplements they have received from the Academy of Sport, which has now morphed into High Performance Sport New Zealand. In some cases, individual athletes were ordering double-figure amounts of different supplements.
Those supplements are not necessarily risky, but the onus is high on them ensuring what they are taking is legal. Ryder's case highlights the need for vigilance.
For example, stay well clear of supplements with explosive names, such as Detonate and Rip Freak. In Steel's book, from a testing perspective, they are bad news. In thousands of tests, he estimates 20-30 related to supplements, virtually all linked to potions with aggressive names. He also disputes those pre-workout supplements provide much assistance.
"People claim they get a boost in training, but they are by definition stimulants and that's a banned class of substances.
"All our supplements cases relate to those forms of stimulants, pre-workout formulations or fat burners, many of which have those explosive names."
So is there a risk that athletes will figure supplements are at the bottom end of the risk scale, and are less careful than they should be?
"That is a risk and that's why they need to be well bedded down in a structure which is constantly reminding them and advising them how to minimise the risk.
"I'm sure you can become blase and think, 'I've been using this a while but I might try that; it looks like it might be a bit better'."
However there is an encumbrance on support structures around athletes to negotiate a path through an often complicated web.
"It seems to me it would be a little like an ostrich, to say, 'this is all too difficult, you're on your own, go ahead and do what you think is best'.
"That was the scenario Jesse was in. A mate says this might work for you; he'd forgotten what he'd been told before."
Steel said DFSNZ's experience is those sports with well-organised operations in the area of drug education have no issues.
"You would distinguish them from [NRL club] Cronulla Sharks and [AFL club] Essendon, where they were not properly managed and possibly not well intentioned either."
Steel has a good car-buying analogy for athletes pondering whether to embark on a programme of sports supplements but unsure whether they are legal. A mechanic may tell you the make of car you want to buy is well regarded, but will not assume the car itself will be fine without checking it out first.
Steel admitted he's "not completely" satisfied with the level of education national bodies put into their athletes. However there are exceptions, cricket being one, a touch ironic given this week's events.
"They adopted a plan where every player went through a session. Notwithstanding what happened with Jesse we can be satisfied that's a good process."
Sports with player associations generally do a good job. Other sports are problematic simply because it is difficult to get groups of athletes together.
Bottom line, Steel and his board know New Zealand athletes are using supplements which carry a risk.
"The reality is they're using them and they need some help."
Drug Free Sport New Zealand
Who are Drug Free Sport New Zealand?
* It is a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Agency code, and acts on behalf of New Zealand sports organisations.
* However it only works with sports who adopt the same rules as it does. It takes responsibility for testing that sports would otherwise have to do themselves and do it in an independent fashion. Sports that don't adopt the DFSNZ rules cannot receive assistance.
* It has been in operation in various forms since the late 1980s.
What Wada Says
World anti doping agency boss, New Zealander David Howman, maintains the bottom line applies; athletes cannot afford to take chances on supplements.
"There's not only the risk of the non regulation but there's also the risk of contamination," Howman said. "One huge problem with supplements is they're totally unregulated all around the world and at least 80 per cent are made in the US, where the [Food and Drug Administration] has no jurisdiction.
"You might get one batch from a company that's fine. The next batch that comes out might not be, that's the issue when you have an unregulated industry."
Wada's key points on supplements include:
* Taking a poorly labelled dietary supplement is not an adequate defence in a doping hearing. Athletes should be aware of the dangers of potential contamination of supplements and of the significant effect of the principle of strict liability.
* It does not matter how the substance got there. If an athlete tests positive the result is a disqualification and possible sanction or suspension.
* Supplements which advertise "muscle building" or "fat burning" capabilities are most likely to contain a prohibited substance, either an anabolic agent or a stimulant.