EDITORIAL — “The Times They are a-Changin’” penned songwriter Bob Dylan in 1963, and the lyrics have proven timeless and widely applicable. Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “The only thing that is constant is change.”
In recent years, marijuana reform has swept across the nation. Medical marijuana is legal in 25 states. During the 2016 elections, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts all voted in favor of legalized use, sale, and consumption of recreational marijuana. They joined Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia to decriminalize cannabis use.
With recreational use now legal in Nevada, the Nevada Athletic Commission is entertaining the idea of removing the drug from its banned substance list. While the measure would be groundbreaking, it would have little impact on athletes and zero impact on UFC fighters.
To understand how we got here, we have to look back on the history of how Nevada has handled positive marijuana tests in the past and why the substance is banned.
Executive Director at the time, Keith Kizer, explained to MMAWeekly.com why marijuana is banned and why the Diaz win over Gomi was overturned.
“In the past, the main reason steroids is illegal or prohibited, just like marijuana, just like alcohol, just like aspirin to take before a fight, is because it puts the athlete at risk. It's a danger to him. For example, aspirin can cause you to bleed into your brain. Obviously marijuana and alcohol can change your reflexes, slow them down, so you can get injured, or it could numb the pain so you don't realize you're hurt. That's why we don't let fighters, for example, to have cortisone shots into their back or into their hand before they fight because they cannot realize they're hurt and they keep fighting and the next thing you know they're permanently damaged,” Kizer said in 2007.
“With Nick Diaz's case, a very brutal fight, a fight where he was able to retain his composure and deal with some pretty severe injuries. Did marijuana help him deal with that? Obviously it didn't make him a better fighter, but did it help him keep his composure? Did it help him with some of the pain issues? The answer is, who knows? At the end of the day, do you resolve any uncertainties in favor of the fighter who cheated, or on the fighter who didn't cheat? The commission decided, no, we're going to resolve any uncertainties for the fighter who followed the rules, Mr. Gomi, and make it a not contest,” he explained.
The decision to overturn Diaz’ win was unprecedented at the time and set the standard for all commissions moving forward. But the winds of change began to blow with state marijuana reform.
It’s been a controversial issue and UFC president Dana White has stated over the years that he doesn’t agree with testing for marijuana, but rules are rules.
“To say that marijuana is a performance enhancing drug, I think it’s the exact opposite. What the commission is saying is they think it’s a painkiller, still ridiculous,” said White prior to UFC 158 in 2013.
“I don’t believe in it, but here’s the facts. It’s illegal. You can’t do it. It says it in the regulations you can’t, and if you get busted for doing it you’re going to be in big trouble. You’re going to lose money. You’re going to lose the ability to work for a year, so it is what it is.”
In March 2015, White didn’t believe the day would come where marijuana was removed from the banned substance list, but that day may be upon us.
“At the end of the day, people look at marijuana differently,” he said.
“Even if it becomes legal and you can hang around your house and you can do it, or do it out in public, when you’re competing in a sport… the reason that there’s medical marijuana is for people who are cancer patients, for pain and things like that. I think it’s still going to be looked at as a type of painkiller or something, and painkillers are banned substances.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a day where marijuana is okay for athletes, but the amount of nanograms that can be in their system might go up a little bit. They might allow more nanograms,” said White.
In May 2013, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) raised the in-competition threshold for marijuana tenfold, from 15 to 150 nanograms per milliliter. In September of the same year, the Nevada Athletic Commission raised its accepted level of marijuana metabolites by three times, from 50 ng/mL to 150 ng/mL.
So what happens if the Nevada Athletic Commission removes cannabinoids from its banned substance list? The short answer is, nothing, if you're a UFC fighter.
In June 2015, the UFC announced a partnership with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to serve as an independent administrator to its drug testing policy. Commissions are no longer in charge of administering drug tests to UFC fighters.
While Nevada could set a trend for change to marijuana testing in combat sports, USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) would have to remove the drug from its banned substance list before UFC athletes would be able to test positive without consequences.
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For fighters competing in organizations outside of the UFC, the removal of marijuana from the banned substance list in Nevada would be different and have an immediate impact. They’d be able to test positive and not receive a fine or suspension in Nevada. But there would still, assuredly, be regulations in place to prevent a fighter from entering competition while under the influence of marijuana, like with aspirin, alcohol, and other non-performance enhancing substances. A fighter can't be drunk when entering the cage, and wouldn't be allowed to be intoxicated by marijuana, either. The question would be where that final limit would be set.
Nevada’s potential decision on marijuana testing wouldn’t affect other states. Each state would make its own decision whether or not to follow suite. Nevada could take the first step that generates widespread changes to marijuana testing in combat sports, or it could be the only state that allows a positive test for cannabinoids not to be a violation.