Nick Diaz Is to Blame, But So Are Meaningless Commission Marijuana Tests

Daniel Herbertson, MMA Fighting

Nick Diaz failed in his obligations to himself and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. But the Nevada State Athletic Commission's use of urinalysis to determine impairment isn't providing any service to mixed martial arts, the fighters or the fans.

Let's establish two facts from the outset. First, Nick Diaz's use of marijuana to the extent it produced a positive drug test result is irresponsible. Second, the urinalysis test regarding marijuana consumption used by athletic commissions (ostensibly) designed to protect the health and safety of fighters does neither and is little more than kabuki theater.

The UFC has every right to be disappointed with Nick Diaz. They invested huge sums of money and other promotional resources to push him, his fight and build him as a pay-per-view attraction. As incoherent and insane as some of the rules may be (more on that in a minute), he accepted the handshake. That meant not only fighting Condit, it also included media promotion and some measure of clean living. For him to test positive on the urinalysis - which could've resulted in promotional disaster for the UFC had he actually defeated Condit at UFC 143 - is the height of unprofessionalism and represents a total failure as a partner to the UFC.

But it's also true, and perhaps more important, that the urinalysis test (MMAFighting.com has confirmed Nevada uses urinalyses to test fighters for various banned substances, including marijuana) used by the Nevada State Athletic Commssion (NSAC) to gauge marijuana use does not perform the function it purports to do.

"[Marijuana] is banned because of the damage it does to the person taking it," said Keith Kizer, Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Officer to the L.A. Times. "It could make you lethargic, slow your reflexes, and those are dangerous things in a combat sport."

Kizer's argument is technically true, but incredibly misleading. In order to have any relevance in the combat sports context - remember, Diaz is medically cleared to use it in his personal life by a licensed medical practitioner - Kizer's argument has to apply to a fighter's state during sanctioned competition. After all, it's fair to argue no fighter should be competing under the euphoric effects of marijuana.

Here's the problem: urinalysis tests are incapable of determining when a person used. Drug use expert, author and Senior Editor of Reason magazine Jacob Sullum, explains it is scientific fact urinalyses only determine that someone used, not when.

"[The urinalysis] shows that the drug has been consumed at some point," Sullum told MMAFighting.com, "but it doesn't pinpoint when and the problem arises mainly with marijuana because there's a very long detection window for marijuana ranging anywhere from a few days up to a month after somebody has smoked a joint depending on how heavy of a smoker they are, it can be detected for quite a long time after they're not high anymore so it's not a measure of intoxication or impairment, it's an indicator that they have consumed marijuana at some point in the past possibly, quite a time ago."

"If you're doing it with urine," Sullum continued, "it's not going to be a measurement of current intoxication or impairment simply because what you're measuring is metabolized after the marijuana is processed. So just by the nature of the test, it's never going to be the test of somebody's current condition."

If a urinalysis can't determine current levels of impairment, what can? Sullum says no method is perfect, but blood tests (generally, a more expensive proposition) is a significantly more accurate measurement. "[The blood test] is measuring THC levels in the blood so that's a better indicator, just like with alcohol, you want to know if somebody had a drink recently and how much have they consumed, you can get an idea of that by looking at the alcohol in their blood because that's what's affecting them right now. If there's THC in their blood above a certain cutoff, that's affecting you right now. If it's in your urine, it's not. Your urine is not circulated through your body so the relevant concern is what's actually affecting you now. Blood is a much more accurate measure of that".

What's worse, the urinalysis puts a heavy burden on the marijuana user over other banned substances - like cocaine - that pose greater health risks but have shorter detection windows. "Yeah, it's a shorter window for other drugs," said Sullum. "Marijuana is unusual in that it's such a long window but even with other drugs, it can be a day or two or three depending upon the drug."

Nick Diaz's problem isn't that he used marijuana in too close a proximity to the fight. By the commission's own perverse enforcement system, it's that he's got the wrong drug of choice.

It is more understandable your standard employer would use a urinalysis as a screen for potential hires. All they want is peace of mind you're not using drugs. They don't need to know if when you took it you were or weren't high. That level of specificity is overkill.

Athletic commissions not only have the need, they have the responsibility. When commissions use urinalysis to measure impairment of marijuana and other banned substances, no one's health is protected, no one's safety is at issue. In administering these tests, they become less a governing body tasked with regulating the sport and more just vice cops regulating personal behavior unrelated to occupational demands.

Blame Nick Diaz all you like. He knew what he was getting into. The larger issue, however, isn't about him. It's a question of the efficacy of athletic commission protocol and the damaging penalties they hand out when fighters run afoul of demonstrably meaningless screens.

Talk about reefer madness.

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