Mixed Martial Arts, Marijuana and the Problem with Current Drug Testing Policy

James MacDonald@@JimMacDonaldMMAFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2013

Courtesy of MMAJunkie
Courtesy of MMAJunkie

Marijuana and its status as a performance-enhancing drug (PED) has long been a contentious issue in sport generally, but particularly in combat sports.

With the recent news of several prominent mixed martial artists testing positive for marijuana metabolites and the obscenely punitive $900,000 fine and nine-month suspension for Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., the issue appears to be coming to a head.

Generally speaking, I adopt the libertarian perspective when it comes to marijuana use (and drug use in general): Do as you please so long as you are not harming anyone else.

Of course, the very nature of mixed martial arts tends to complicate that stance, forcing one to ask: Does marijuana enhances one’s ability to inflict physical harm inside the cage? The answer to that question really depends on whom you ask.

Keith Kizer, the NSAC executive director, has argued in the past that marijuana is likely more harmful to the person taking the drug than it is to an opponent:

“[Marijuana] is banned because of the damage it does to the person taking it. It could make you lethargic, slow your reflexes, and those are dangerous things in a combat sport."

But, as Joe Rogan pointed out on a recent episode of the JRE, there is a distinction to be made between two separate species of Cannabis plant: Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa.

The former is associated with the popular image we have in our heads of slackers slumped on the couch, spliff-in-hand, gigglingly watching Ren & Stimpy. In other words, it’s as likely to enhance your in-cage performance as downing a bottle of Ambien.

Sativa, on the other hand, offers a very different kind of high. It makes the consumer more energetic, enhances audio and visual senses and may provide pain relief—indica also has analgesic properties, it should be noted.

It’s easy to see why this might be considered performance-enhancing, even if the line between legal and illegal performance enhancement has become increasingly blurred in recent times. Still, it’s an issue very much open to debate.

However, perhaps the bigger issue is not whether marijuana is a PED, but outdated drug testing policy.

State athletic commissions generally rely on urinalysis for drug testing, which can only detect the presence of non-active marijuana metabolites. In order to properly identify the active compound (Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC), a blood test is required—and only for a few hours after consumption.

What this essentially means is that athletic commissions have the capacity to determine whether an individual has taken marijuana, but not when it was actually taken.

This would not be an issue but for the fact that marijuana, unlike most banned substances, is not prohibited out-of-competition.

Therefore, if Nick Diaz, Matthew Riddle and Alex Caceres want to light up a joint a few weeks prior to a fight, common sense would suggest that they are well within their rights to do so—assuming it is otherwise legal.

But, as has become apparent, state athletic commissions frequently abandon common sense when enforcing their drug policy.

Fortunately, there is some cause for optimism.

As reported by B/R’s own Damon Martin, the UFC’s Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, Marc Ratner, met with the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) on Thursday to request that the commission re-evaluate their handling of fighters who test positive for marijuana, arguing that their current policy is outdated:

"Society is changing, it's a different world now than when I was on the commission.  States are legalizing marijuana and it's becoming more and more of a problem with fighters testing positive and the metabolites…Right now I just cannot believe that a performance enhancing drug and marijuana can be treated the same. It just doesn't make sense to the world anymore and it's something that has to be brought up."

While more lenient sentences for individuals who get popped for marijuana use is not the ultimate goal, it’s a solid first step on the road to improved testing, therapeutic exemptions and, perhaps, eventual legalisation.

Marc Ratner is right when he says that society is changing, but it would be equally correct to say that society has already changed significantly in recent years.

With athletes routinely being suspended for imaginary infractions, archaic drug testing policies are no longer a mere inconvenience. It’s time for state athletic commissions to evolve and adapt to the current social and moral zeitgeist.