The National Rugby League has rightly been embarrassed today over its much vaunted new “tough policy” on drugs.

In truth the new policy is based on the increasingly discredited AFL policy – a policy that has already forced the AFL to seek court action to prevent the identity of players who failed two tests being revealed by the media.

The problem for a number of NRL clubs – notably the North Queensland Cowboys – is that the new policy is significantly weaker than the policy the clubs themselves have been implemented. It was the zero tolerance policy adopted by the Cowboys that resulted in the instant sacking of Mitchell Sargent for a first offence late last year.

The new policy – which the NRL wants to be uniform – is effectively a “three strikes” policy. For a first offence, the penalty is a suspended fine. For a second offence it is a fine of 15% of the player’s salary, and for a third offence an automatic 12 week suspension.

NRL clubs were given until last Friday to comment on the draft NRL policy and while all favour a uniform approach, five clubs – almost a third of the total – believe the proposed penalties are too weak.

The five clubs are the Canberra Raiders, Cronulla Sharks, Melbourne Storm, the Cowboys and the new team, the Gold Coast Titans.

As the Cowboys CEO, Peter Parr, points out in today’s Daily Telegraph, most players get fined for missing training, or even being late for training, yet the proposed penalty for a first offence for drug use – even for drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy – is a suspended fine!

The Titans’ Michael Searle believes the proposed penalties are not an adequate deterrent.

I can only agree. What is the “deterrent” in a suspended fine? And even for a THIRD offence it only a 12 week suspension!

Wendell Sailor was run out of rugby union for a first offence. Sargent was sacked by the Cowboys for a first offence – though he was allowed to sign with the Newcastle Knights just a couple of weeks later.

While it may be argued that there is a zero tolerance policy for non-performance enhancing drug use, the NRL is running the risk of being seen as “soft” on drugs because the proposed penalty for a first offence is not a penalty at all.

And the five clubs with the courage to say so deserve to be heard by the game’s administrators – and its owners, including News Limited.