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UFC, USADA make significant rule change regarding marijuana use for athletes under anti-doping program

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Nate Diaz
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC and the United States Anti-Doping Agency have announced a significant change to the UFC’s anti-doping program.

The updated rules effective as of Jan. 1 will no longer punish athletes who test positive for marijuana, specifically THC (11-nor-9-carboxy-tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the main psychoactive ingredient in the drug.

Previously, athletes were only tested for marijuana in-competition around a fight but there were threshold levels in place and a positive test above that limit resulted in a doping violation. Now under the new rules, fighters will no longer be punished for testing positive for marijuana unless “further evidence demonstrates the substance was taken for performance-enhancing purposes.”

“It’s really, as with everything we do with this program, it’s science-based,” UFC senior vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky told MMA Fighting. “Especially in the pandemic era, we’ve had all these issues with fighters and taking fights last minute and then ending up with positive in-competition marijuana results and we always follow up on these — ‘when did you use?’ It always was the case that the use was days if not weeks out from the fight.

“I’ve always been interested in this and pushing for some of these changes but it definitely accelerated our look into it. I think the main thing that guided this decision was a report the Department of Transportation put together for Congress a few years back.”

A report submitted to Congress in 2017 called “Marijuana Impaired-Driving” sought to explore how law enforcement officers should deal with drivers who would potentially be stopped while under the influence of marijuana.

Perhaps the most significant discovery from the report stated that unlike blood-alcohol levels, which could more easily determine a driver’s impairment, there was no set number that could show the same for marijuana — “in contrast to the situation with alcohol, someone can show little or no impairment at a THC level at which someone else may show a greater degree of impairment.”

“What the science shows, there’s so many variables with your urine or blood levels of THC that there’s really no scientific correlation between that number and impairment,” Novitzky explained. “That’s really the only thing we care about in fighting from an anti-doping perspective is impairment.”

Previously, the UFC had a threshold set at 180 ng/ML and a positive drug test over that limit in-competition constituted a doping violation. As the Department of Transportation report showed, there was actually no standard limit that could prove a person was impaired as a result of using marijuana.

Now the UFC is updating its anti-doping program rules to reflect a more modern approach to dealing with athletes who use marijuana.

“There’s just no science to support that any number correlates to impairment,” Novitzky said. “So that’s why we felt necessary to add that extra prong into the determination factor of ‘is there real evidence of impairment?’ I think this is going to be really good.”

USADA officials echoed those same thoughts regarding the updates to the program after doing additional research regarding marijuana use in athletes.

“As you may remember from last year, we listed a ‘substances of abuse’ category that included cannabinoids and we continued to do research on causes of positive tests and performance-enhancing benefits,” USADA UFC and Premier Sport senior manager Ryan Carpenter told MMA Fighting.

“In a significant number of cases involving cannabinoids, we found that the THC presence was residual and provided no performance-enhancing benefit nor impairment at the levels found.”

As far as the instances where a fighter could still be punished for marijuana when using it as a performance-enhancing substance, Novitzky gave an example how that could potentially come into play.

“It’s inherent that performance-enhancing would mean that you’re impaired under marijuana,” Novitzky said. “That you’re under the influence. So we’re making the leap that if you’re under the influence there is some performance-enhancing benefit there.

“The scenarios that I could think of would be a fighter shows up fight night in the locker room, they have bloodshot eyes, they smell like marijuana, they’re slurring or a far-off gaze. There’s evidence that they recently used marijuana, I think would qualify as the performance-enhancing factor because they’re actively impaired at a fight.”

One major caveat to the updated UFC anti-doping program is that athletes will still be tested by various athletic commissions around the globe, which means they could still potentially face punishment for a positive marijuana test.

For instance, the Nevada State Athletic Commission still vigorously tests and punishes athletes who go over the threshold limit in competition when fighting in the state. A number of UFC athletes have faced suspensions and fines over the past year following positive drug tests for marijuana.

Novitzky warns athletes to understand these updates to the UFC anti-doping program are only related to the USADA, which means a state athletic commission could still punish them for marijuana.

“We’re really excited about this but we have to temper this excitement a little bit because I don’t want the message to get out to our fighters that hey it’s free rein now,” Novitzky said. “Because they’re still dealing with athletic commissions.

“We’re going to be fighting in Nevada most of this year and they still have the 150 nanogram threshold.”

Of course this does allow the UFC the opportunity to work with those same athletic commissions in hopes that the updates made to the anti-doping program run by the USADA could help educate as well as potentially facilitate changes to those rule sets as well.

“That’s the next mode we’re stepping into after we announce these changes,” Novitzky revealed. “In fact, we’ve started already with athletic commissions. Sharing this science with them. I had a great call with [executive director] Andy Foster of California a couple of hours ago letting him know here’s what we’re doing, here’s why we’re doing it. He showed a great amount of interest.

“They are already one of the most progressive commissions on how they handle marijuana. I think they fine like $100 for a positive marijuana test. They don’t sanction. They don’t overturn victories. So he was really interested and I think enthusiastic about what we’re doing.”

Novitzky has been at the forefront of seeking changes when it came to marijuana and the UFC’s anti-doping policy as organizations such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA ) continue to explore possible updates to the banned substances list as well as suggested threshold levels for certain drugs.

Considering the number of pharmaceutical grade drugs that are legal now for athletes to use at all times, Novitzky can’t help but sympathize with fighters who would prefer to use something like marijuana instead.

“When I get those calls weeks out from a fight, fighters that use marijuana say ‘Jeff, when should I stop to make sure I’m under the level?’ Novitzky said. “What some of those stories include are ‘I choose to use marijuana in lieu of opioids for pain management, in lieu of Xanax to control my anxiety, in lieu of Ambien so I can sleep because I’m so damn nervous before a fight.’ It bothered me a lot that the rules in anti-doping really directs these fighters towards more dangerous drugs, the closer they get to fights.

“Because things like certain opioids, Xanax and Ambien are allowed at all times. They aren’t prohibited. I felt horrible passing that information along to fighters saying ‘get off the marijuana but you’re good taking Xanax, Ambien and Vicodin before a fight.’ It’s not right. Certainly, I don’t think there’s any argument that while we prefer our fighters use no drugs, on the scale of danger, on the scale of addiction, marijuana is much lower on the list than things like opioids, Xanax, Ambien.”

With the new policy that lessens the possibility of fighters being punished for marijuana, Novitzky hopes that this is seen as further proof that the UFC wants a clean sport, but also that the promotion is willing to make necessary changes to ensure athletes are being treated fairly while following the science related to certain substances.

“We said this from beginning and that’s my primary role, to be that liaison between the athlete and USADA,” Novitzky said. “We’re always making sure in addition to being a real comprehensive, loophole free program that it’s fair, that it has due process. If you look, this is the third revision that we’ve made to the policy, and almost every change that we’ve made has been a benefit of the fairness to the athletes.

“That’s something that I’ll do as long as I’m here. To make sure that I’m the eyes and the ears of the athlete as it relates to the fairness of this program. As soon as I see something that I don’t think is fair or science doesn’t support, we’re going to act real quick and change that. I think this is a prime example of that.”