Mixed martial arts promoter Ultimate Fighting Championship and the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced on Thursday that marijuana would no longer be banned for fighters in most cases. UFC and USADA officials said that they have made significant changes “in the handling of cannabis and its naturally occurring cannabinoid compounds.”
Under the new policy, positive tests for carboxy-THC, a metabolite of the cannabinoid, would no longer be a violation “unless additional evidence exists that an athlete used it intentionally for performance-enhancing purposes.”
“While we want to continue to prevent athletes from competing under the influence of marijuana, we have learned that blood and/or urine levels of carboxy-THC have little to no scientific correlation to impairment,” UFC senior vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky said in a statement. “THC is fat-soluble, meaning that once ingested, it is stored in fatty tissues and organs in the body and can be released back into the blood or urine, sometimes long after ingestion.”
“The bottom line is that in regards to marijuana, we care about what an athlete consumed the day of a fight, not days or weeks before a fight, which has often been the case in our historic positive THC cases,” he added.
Novitsky said despite the time THC spends in the body, the effects of cannabis are felt for hours, not days. He also noted that there is no correlation between the level of THC in an athlete’s body and impairment.
“Why the hell do we care what someone did a week before, let alone a night before, when it doesn’t have any effect on their ability to fight,” Novitzky said to ESPN.
High Burden of Proof
The policy sets the burden of proof for the USADA to sanction a fighter for a positive THC test very high, essentially eliminating punishment for marijuana use. Novitzky said the USADA would have to prove a fighter was impaired by cannabis immediately before a fight in order to impose a punishment.
“I can’t think of one instance in any historical cases where that evidence has been there,” Novitzky said. “It would probably require visual signs if the athletes show up at an event stumbling, smelling like marijuana, eyes bloodshot, things like that. And that’s … something you rarely, if ever, see. I certainly haven’t in my six years with the UFC.”
Novitzky noted that based on discussions with athletes, a significant percentage of fighters use cannabis, many for medical rather than recreational purposes.
“Many use it for pain control, anti-anxiety, to sleep, in lieu of more dangerous, more addictive drugs, he said, adding “it has no effect whatsoever on a competition on Saturday night, so it’s the right move, and I’m really excited about this revision and that specific policy change.”
“This change is designed to prioritize fighter health and safety by not punishing fighters who may need treatment for substance abuse, which may lead to a fighter being impaired and jeopardize his or her safety in the Octagon,” the USADA said in a press release.