Train by Day

by Noah Smith

On December 2 nd , 2020, The Nevada State Athletic Commission, a governing body
that sanctions and regulates combat sports such as MMA and boxing, handed down
it’s verdict. The sentence? A six-month ban from the sport, an $8,500 fine, and yet
another hard-fought victory scrubbed from the official record and retroactively
changed to a no-contest. The crime? Having trace amounts of cannabinoid
metabolites detected in a post-fight urinalysis test. The defendant was Niko Price, a
welterweight currently signed to the UFC, who fought seasoned veteran Donald
“Cowboy” Cerrone to a majority draw in Las Vegas last September. This is not the
first time that Price has run afoul of a state’s athletic commission. In 2017 the Texas
Department of Licensing and Regulation penalized Price for a positive cannabis test
result and issued a 90-day suspension, a $1,000 fine, and overturned his knockout
win over Alex Morono to a no-contest.


This behavior is nothing new for the NSAC. If anything, it’s business as usual for the
body that regulates combat sports in the city of sin, home to the headquarters of the
UFC. In 2015, the commission handed down an unprecedented five-year ban to
MMA pioneer and former Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz for a positive cannabis
test, paired with a whopping $165,000 fine. At the time of sentencing, Diaz was 32
years old, which is close to the tail end of the window of peak physical fitness for
most people. By issuing him a 5-year suspension, the Nevada State Athletic
Commission was effectively handing down a death sentence to the career of one of
Mixed Martial Arts’ very first bonafide star attractions. His opponent in that bout,
Anderson Silva, also failed his post-fight drug screen. Silva, however, did not fail for
cannabis metabolites, but for metabolites of exogenous testosterone and intra-
muscular anabolic steroids. For his ingestion of banned performance enhancing
substances, also known as “literally cheating”, Silva received only a one-year
suspension.


Price and Diaz are hardly alone in their cannabis usage. Recent polling showed over
half of all active UFC fighters currently signed to the roster admitted to some degree
of cannabis usage. This statistic is well below the national average. The Pew
Research center released poll results from April of this year showing a 91%
approval rating for legal access to cannabis. Beyond the sea change in social norms
and the increasing recognition of the psychological and social harms of
stigmatization, there is also a growing body of evidence for the plant’s utility
amongst elite athletes, in part due to its neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory
properties. Why then, are our athletic commissions still stuck in the past when it
comes to cannabis usage by fighters?


Confounding the issue is that within the world of combat sports, the rules can
change drastically due to the Kafkaesque Venn diagram of different regulatory and
governmental bodies who all have autodidactic control over both the doping policy
and even the rule set in effect for the fight, which means that all of the above-listed
concerns can change drastically from one fight to another. These are not small
changes we are talking about. Is it legal for a fighter to possess and smoke cannabis?
What constitutes a downed opponent? Can the referee and officials look at the instant replay?

In all three cases the answer is the same: Depends on where you
fight.


Let’s take a look at it from the top down. First and foremost, the UFC has it’s own
anti-doping policy and testing standards that it enforces through it’s partnership
with USADA, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which despite it’s bureaucratic
moniker is a private non-profit with no actual legal authority… though it is largely
funded with taxpayer money through grants from the Office of National Drug
Control policy, which is an actual part of the Executive Branch of the United States
government. So you have the federal government, a private non-profit, and a
publically traded for-profit corporation all exerting influence over this set of rules.
That’s just the first layer.


Those rules are in effect and enforced for every fight at every venue. But then you
have to take into consideration the local laws and regulations. Even removed from
the fight world, in the United States cannabis laws can vary drastically from state to
state, and in some cases from city to city. And that’s only if the fight is held on US
soil. Many domestic fights are held at venues located on tribal reservations, so then
you can have the tribal athletic commission’s policy, which may or may not line up
with the state’s policy, which may or may not line up with the UFC’s policy, which
may or may not line up with the policies of the government of the event’s hosting
nation.
Like so many things in the realm of cannabis policy, it can get very complicated very
quickly.


There are, however, signs of movement in the right direction. Despite an unusual
number of suspensions issued to fighters towards the tail end of 2020, the UFC and
USADA announced earlier this year that it was no longer testing for cannabis
metabolites in fighter testing panels, though it reserves the right to change this
policy at it’s own discretion. This announcement dovetails with policy shifts that
have been seen across other sports in the recent past as well, echoing cannabis-
friendly policy shifts in the NHL, MLB, NBA, and NFL. Cold comfort to fighters who
have already endured suspensions and fines for cannabis violations of anti-doping
policies in the past.


“I would caution everybody to temper their enthusiasm about this because we still
have the commission factor here, but we are actively working on that,” wrote Jeff
Novitzky, Senior Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance for the UFC, in a
statement to MMA Junkie. “We are educating, informing, lobbying them, and I hope
not too far in the near future that we can get uniformity across all the rules as it
relates to marijuana because I think it would certainly be a benefit to the athletes.”

Nick Diaz’ case hits close to home for me personally, as like Diaz, I also struggle with
Attention Deficit Disorder. Using cannabis to treat my ADD has been critical to my
ability to function on a daily basis without relying heavily on prescription
amphetamines such as Adderall, itself a schedule 2 controlled substance under the
Controlled Substance Act, and one that has significantly harsher side effects and
greater risk of dependency compared to cannabis. Yet because this harsh chemical
compound comes in a familiar pill form obtained from the pharmacy, it is often
perceived as being somehow nobler or more socially acceptable than cannabis
usage. Sometimes I even struggle with internalizing and projecting those stigmas
onto myself, an unfortunate but inevitable side-effect of growing up in an era and a
society where these lines of judgment can be so widely and arbitrarily drawn.
The net result is that both in the world of combat sports and everyday civilian life,
cannabis users are forced to shoehorn other people’s subjective value judgments
into the mental calculus of concerns and consequences that govern their attempts to
care for their own minds and bodies, which are as private and personal a set of
concerns as can be accurately described by those words within the limits of their
dictionary definitions. Like so many aspects of how a society deals with it’s drugs of
choice, it all comes down to an informal, unspoken social stratification where we as
a collective somehow decide who is and who isn’t deserving of both dignity and
bodily autonomy.
Given enough time, though, everything comes full circle eventually.


Last week at the post-fight press conference for UFC 263, Nick Diaz joined his
younger brother Nathan, himself also a legend of the UFC roster, who had competed
that night. One by one, sports journalists came up to the microphone to ask Nathan
their questions. After distractedly answering a few reporter questions and fiddling
with his phone, Nathan, with the cameras rolling, sparked a pre-rolled joint under
the table and started openly smoking it for the remainder of the interview.
The second to last reporter approached the microphone and asked about the
rumors that his big brother Nick was considering a return to the ring after years
away from the sport. “My brother’s around me, that’s the best thing that could
happen, that’s the greatest fighter of all time as far as I’m concerned” Diaz said to the
journalist, “If that’s gonna happen, I think that’s the best thing for MMA.”
Then, as if summoned, Nick Diaz approached the side of the table where his little
brother Nathan was giving his interview. Without a word, Nathan passed his big
brother the joint, who walked off to the periphery, flanked on both sides by
cameramen. Here he stood at the biggest promotion in the sport he had dedicated
his life to, the sport which had chastised and persecuted him for years over his
medicine. Nick raised the joint to his lips, took a deep soulful drag, and exhaled a
cloud of smoke.


The last reporter to ask a question approached the microphone.

“Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid?”

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