Dave Herman Suspension: Is Marijuana Really a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

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Dave Herman Suspension: Is Marijuana Really a Performance-Enhancing Drug?
Illustration by Don Jupiter

The recent removal of Dave Herman from a scheduled UFC heavyweight main-card bout after testing positive for Marijuana is not something new.  Although Herman denies he used the drug, other well-known fighters have also tested positive for marijuana in the past. 

In 2007, after beating Takanori Gomi at Pride 33, Nick Diaz tested positive for marijuana. The fight was eventually ruled a no-contest as a result. That same year, Diego Sanchez tested positive for marijuana after a KO of Joe Riggs at UFC Fight Night 7. Sanchez was given a three-month suspension, paid a $500 fine and, on the bright side, the fight remained a win for Diego.

I’m surprised no one has used a variation of the Chael Sonnen defense.  Something like, "I was found to have low levels of THC in my blood, so a California doctor prescribed me some marijuana." FYI, it is legal to buy pot from state-sanctioned marijuana dispensaries in California with a doctor’s prescription.

Testing fighters for marijuana hinges on the question, "is pot a PED" or "is it banned because it is an illegal substance?" Alcohol, which is legal, causes more damaging physical side effects than marijuana.  However, booze is perfectly okay for a fighter to consume as far as the MMA and boxing commissions are concerned, it is not deemed a PED or a banned substance and it is not tested for.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Marijuana intoxication can cause distorted perceptions, impaired coordination, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and problems with learning and memory.” This certainly doesn’t sound like good consequences for a fighter.  Like whoa, am I supposed to hit someone? 

Is marijuana a PED?

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A fighter would clearly be at a great disadvantage coming into a bout while high on grass.  This isn’t the issue.  The question is whether or not marijuana imparts some unfair advantage if used while the athlete is preparing for a bout.

Also according to the NIDA, “Marijuana smoke contains 50-70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke.”  This surely can’t be good for an athlete.  They go on to report, “Marijuana smokers can have many of the same respiratory problems as tobacco smokers, such as daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent acute chest illness, and a heightened risk of lung infections.”

Clearly, weed is not going to help an elite fighter train for a bout or improve his cardio. Also on the downside, pot makes people hungry - it’s called the munchies.  In fact, ghanja is prescribed by doctors in California to help cancer patients regain their appetite after receiving chemotherapy.  This side-effect can’t be good at all for a fighter trying to maintain his weight. Don’t smoke that spliff Man, or you’ll be fighting an irresistible Twinkie binge. 

So, why would a fighter smoke marijuana? Let’s be honest, the NIDA is not about to say anything good about pot, so maybe the drug’s benefits haven’t been looked at objectively.

Perhaps the most compelling reason a fighter would light up; numerous studies have determined that cannabinoids (the active ingredients in marijuana) actually help reduce pain. 

Hitting heavy bags, sparring and wrestling result in bruising, soreness and pain.  It’s a fact of life for fighters.  Maybe a few tokes can help with muscle recovery by reducing pain, but is this possible benefit worth the downside effects? 

Another reason for a fighter to smoke grass is to relax. Successful fighters are obsessed with training and winning, and sometimes need to chill out. Pot may be the lesser of many evils to choose from when some form of escape from reality is needed.

Nick Diaz summed up the whole tempest in a teapot issue when he said, “People say that marijuana is going to hurt my career. On the contrary, my fight career is getting in the way of my marijuana smoking.”

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