The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) confirmed Thursday that it will no longer penalize fighters who use cannabis recreationally, joining many other athletic organizations that have significantly altered their drug policies in the last year.
Under the new policy, a positive THC test will no longer automatically lead to suspension from the UFC, as long as the fighter can prove they did not intentionally use it to enhance performance and agrees to complete a series of drug awareness courses. All other cannabis derivatives are no longer prohibited.
“The bottom line is that, in regard to marijuana, we care about what an athlete consumed the day of a fight, not days or weeks before a fight, which has often been the case in our historic positive THC cases,” said Jeff Novitzky, UFC Senior Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance. “UFC athletes will still be subject to marijuana rules under various athletic commission regulations, but we hope this is a start to a broader discussion and changes on this issue with that group.”
The UFC won’t allow fighters to compete while under the influence of cannabinoids, but Novitzky said the promotion recognizes that MMA fighters often use marijuana for pain management or relaxation. Fighters advocating for legal competitive marijuana use have previously argued that a loosening of the UFC’s anti-marijuana rules could lead to a reduction in the use of antidepressants or more addictive pain medications.
The UFC partnered with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in 2015 to produce a comprehensive anti-doping program in a notoriously fractious sport. Mixed martial arts once frequently showcased fighters semi-openly using steroids and testosterone replacement therapy, among other performance enhancements.
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“The goal of the UFC anti-doping program is to protect the rights of clean athletes by deterring intentional cheaters and holding those who choose to dope accountable in a fair and effective way,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said. “These amended rules are aimed at this, and to continue our focus on preventing intentional cheating and not to unnecessarily punish athletes for behavior that does not impact the fairness or safety of competition.”
Despite its prior ban, marijuana and CBD products have had a prominent role in many MMA fighters’ training and financial backing. Many fighters have sponsorships from CBD businesses, while others have launched CBD-related business ventures.
Nick and Nate Diaz, two semi-retired but wildly popular fighters from Stockton, California, have built their outlaw image partly around their enthusiastic use of marijuana and CBD products. Nick Diaz, who hasn’t fought in six years, tested positive for marijuana use after two of his last three fights.
The UFC’s decision doesn’t affect the rules of various state athletic commissions and international governing bodies, but those groups often follow promoters’ leads on anti-doping policy. The UFC hopes state commissions will similarly relax their rules to reflect the more widespread tolerance for marijuana use.
The Nevada State Athletic Commission last year reduced its potential suspensions for marijuana use to six months, while the California commission typically only fines fighters $100. Other states can be more stringent.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.