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CSAC & USADA revising recreational drug guidelines for MMA

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USADA recently put out a press release, stating that they would no longer look to punish fighters for recreational drug use that is not intended for performance enhancing purposes. The California Athletic commission has also announced they would no longer overturn fight results due to marijuana.

UFC 183: Silva v Diaz Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

It’s been a long journey from Nevada handing Nick Diaz a five year ban from competition in 2015 over a failed drug test for marijuana (his third offense in MMA related to the substance), to 2021 and the news that USADA is moving to stop punishing fighters for recreational drug use. The UFC’s drug testing partner put out a press release outlining their change in guidelines. A move that appears as though it’s intended to stop handing out fines and suspensions to fighters not just for marijuana related products, but for recreational drug use in general.

An updated version of the agency’s Anti-Doping policy states that (h/t CombatSportsLaw.com):

Notwithstanding any other provision in this Article 10, (i) when a violation of Articles 2.1 or 2.2 involves a Substance of Abuse and (ii) the Athlete can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the violation did not enhance, and was not intended to enhance, the Athlete’s performance in a Bout, then, provided that the foregoing clauses (i) and (ii) are satisfied, the otherwise applicable period of Ineligibility may be reduced or eliminated, as determined by USADA in its sole discretion based upon the Athlete’s participation in a rehabilitation program as provided below.

The UFC Prohibited List defines “Substances of Abuse” not just as cannabinoids – such as THC – but also narcotics including heroine, fentanyl, oxcodone and others. The list also includes stimulants such as cocaine and ecstasy.

However, as is noted in the paragraph above, and throughout the relevant Anti-Doping Policy sections, USADA has not actually eliminated punishments for recreational drug use. But rather created a framework through which fighters may avoid punishment if they fail drug tests, notably through completion of rehabilitation programs.

In an interesting twist, fighters who do use THC during training may find themselves better served to claim that use is entirely recreational rather than in service of any kind of therapeutic or recovery aid. USADA’s press release specifically states that things like “alleviating pain” and “anxiety” would be considered performance enhancing use.

Most significant to the new rule changes, a UFC athlete who tests positive for carboxy-THC (the main psychoactive component in cannabis) will face a violation by USADA only if evidence demonstrates the substance was taken for performance-enhancing purposes such as alleviating pain or anxiety; otherwise the athlete will not be eligible for sanction. A positive test for the prohibited substance, THC, will result in an atypical finding that will only be deemed a violation if it meets the aforementioned condition.

The press release does go on to note that CBD products “have never been prohibited under the UFC policy.” So fighters who use CBD supplements for pain and anxiety management shouldn’t find themselves suddenly running afoul of these new regulation changes. UFC Drug Czar Jeff Novitzky gave a more concise statement on the new policy and how it well affect UFC fighters going forward (h/t MMA Junkie).

“Based on my informal discussion with athletes, there’s a significant number of percentage of athletes that choose to use marijuana, many for legitimate reasons outside of recreational,” Novitzky said. “Many use it for pain control, anti-anxiety, to sleep, in lieu of more dangerous, more addictive drugs, so hopefully this being the first step to opening that up so that an athlete on Wednesday night of fight week instead of going to a Vicodin because their knee hurts and they can’t sleep can use a little bit of cannabis and get to sleep and have that pain control. It has no affect 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.”

Additionally, speaking to ESPN, Novitzky noted that for an athlete to run afoul of USADA regulations now, from marijuana use, would “probably require visual signs if the athlete shows up at an event stumbling, smelling like marijuana, eyes bloodshot, things like that,” adding that he has never seen a fighter in 6 years with the UFC who would have met that criteria.

For those rare fighters that do end up running into the rehab program side of things, how that will be managed remains to be seen. Former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones notably checked out of rehab, following a positive drug test for cocaine, after only one day in the program. Welterweight Mike Perry was pushed into a rehab program for alcohol abuse by the UFC, after video surfaced of the fighter attacking patrons at a restaurant in Texas. However, Perry was booked again just a few months later. And a recent video posted by ‘Platinum’ while lying in a pool of his own blood cast a fair bit of doubt that he’s curbed his problems.

Following USADA’s lead, ESPN’s Marc Raimondi reports that the California State Athletic Commission will also be easing their regulations around in-competition drug tests for Marijuana. While they won’t be eliminating punishments entirely, it appears the commission will now only institute a minor fine and will not seek to overturn bout results.

Eventually, all of this is good news for fighters and fight fans. There’s really no reason that the UFC, USADA, or athletic commissions should be involved in policing recreational drug use at the cost of athlete privacy and sporting results. Hopefully this latest policy change from the world’s largest MMA promotion will push commissions across the country to follow suit, and put the days of fighters losing wins and win bonuses due to marijuana far behind us.