The suspensions of Nick Diaz, Dave Herman, Matt Riddle and Thiago Silva show that athletic commissions are in need of a serious overhaul on how they approach the issue of marijuana as it is inconsistent with their stance on other medically approved therapies and even logic.
The athletes in question were suspended for having inactive marijuana metabolites in their system. No one is contending that they were fighting while under the influence. An effective analogy would be to a person that goes out on Friday night and imbibes a few alcoholic beverages, but shows up to work on Monday morning clear-headed and ready to be productive. So if the fighters aren’t under the influence when they are competing, what is the rationale for punishing them other than a Mr. Mackie (of South Park fame) type response of “marijuana is bad, mmmkay”?
There is even confusion as to whether the presence of inactive metabolites falls under “in competition” or “out of competition” use standards set by WADA and followed by athletic commissions. Until there is clarification on that, we don’t even know if the athletic commissions are playing by their own set of rules.
That distinction lies at the heart of the Diaz ruling, which Diaz and his camp are still in the process of appealing. Diaz’s lawyer argued that the athletic commission’s should be testing for THC (the active ingredient in marijuana), and called testing for metabolites outdated. The logic of testing for metabolites goes back to when marijuana was deemed illegal in all forms. Because inactive metabolites can stay in the system for thirty days or more, it was easier to test for them and catch offenders rather than testing for the parent drug. Now that medical marijuana is an accepted therapy in Canada and nineteen states in the US, the current testing for inactive metabolites has become outmoded and outdated.
Both Diaz and Riddle have medical clearance in their home states to use marijuana for therapeutic reasons. Certified physicians have deemed it medically appropriate for them to use marijuana. When fighters are prescribed synthetic testosterone (another banned substance), the athletic commissions approve it with a “therapeutic use exemption”. It’s a classic “can’t have it both ways” scenario, the athletic commissions can’t claim to listen to doctors for one form of therapy but dismiss them on another based on personal preference of the substance in question. Medical exemptions are either acceptable or they aren’t.
The Nevada State Athletic Commission’s treatment of Diaz was particularly hypocritical given that earlier in the day they had lauded Chael Sonnen as an expert on TRT (testosterone replacement therapy) and invited him to return to advise the commission on TRT-related issues. This was directly after NSAC Executive Director Keith Kizer had taken Sonnen to task for repeatedly lying. Diaz’s hearing came directly after Sonnen’s and not only did Diaz face a much more combative hearing than Sonnen did, he was also forced to answer questions of little to no relevance about his childhood and what “the munchies” are like. The commission even tried to argue that marijuana is a performance enhancing drug. It was clear from the get-go that they were not budging from their preconceived notions that marijuana is something for ne’er-do-wells no matter what evidence to the contrary was presented to them.
The UFC has seemingly followed the athletic commissions’ lead in their treatment of marijuana, now mandating drug rehabilitation for those who are suspended for marijuana violations. The company announced that both Silva and Herman will go through “an approved drug treatment program” before being allowed to fight in the UFC again. So not only is the UFC seemingly refusing to acknowledge the medicinal benefits of marijuana, they are mandating costly rehabilitation efforts for a substance clinically proven to be non-addictive. Think about that for a moment. If a substance isn’t addictive, what exactly are they rehabilitating from?
Not only are Zuffa and the athletic commission’s going against medical science, logic and possibly the athletic commissions’ own rules on the matter, they are also opening a political quandary and going against the will of the people. In addition to medical marijuana becoming accepted in more places every election cycle, the recent US election saw the states of Washington and Colorado legalize it for recreational use. While the athletic commission’s mandate is geared towards the safety of the athletes involved and not the laws of the land, they are looking more and more out of touch as the rest of the continent’s view continues to evolve. The question remains: if a fighter is not intoxicated during his fight, what is the logic behind punishing them if they are abiding their physician’s advice or the laws in that territory?
The athletic commissions’ and UFC’s stance on marijuana seems to be rooted in a Nixon-era “War on Drugs” mentality. Until that view is modernized and it is judged side-by-side with other medically approved therapies, we’re going to be left with conflicting messages, archaic standards and draconian punishments.
(An abbreviated version of this column appeared on Sportsnet.ca)