The UFC has "essentially" struck marijuana as a punishable offense in its anti-doping policy, the promotion and anti-doping partner USADA said Thursday.
Beginning retroactively Jan. 1, a positive drug test for carboxy-THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, will no longer be considered a violation -- unless USADA is able to prove that an athlete intentionally used it for performance-enhancing purposes, according to a news release.
UFC senior vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky told ESPN that the decision means USADA's burden of proof on any positive drug tests for cannabis would be extremely high, "essentially" de-emphasizing marijuana sanctions completely. Novitzky said USADA would have to prove a fighter was "impaired" due to cannabis just prior to the fight in order to impose a sanction.
"I can't think of one instance in any historical cases where that evidence has been there," Novitzky said. "It would probably require visual signs if the athlete shows up at an event stumbling, smelling like marijuana, eyes bloodshot, things like that. And that's ... something you rarely, if ever, see. I certainly haven't in my six years with the UFC."
Even if USADA did find such evidence, Novitzky said the fighter in question would likely get an admittance into a treatment program rather than a suspension.
Novitzky said the UFC and USADA wanted to make the change because there's no scientific correlation between levels of THC being in urine or blood samples and actual impairment. The effects of THC last for hours, not days, Novitzky said.
"Why the hell do we care what someone did a week before, let alone a night before, when it doesn't have any effect on their ability to fight," Novitzky said.
Many fighters, Novitzky said, use marijuana in lieu of opioids or depressant drugs like Xanax or Ambien.
"This change is designed to prioritize fighter health and safety by not punishing fighters who may need treatment for substance abuse, which may lead to a fighter being impaired and jeopardize his or her safety in the Octagon," the USADA release said.
But fighters are not totally out of the woods yet. While USADA will no longer be stringent on positive marijuana tests, most athletic commissions that oversee UFC events still can be.
The Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) has suspended fighters up to nine months and overturned victories to no contests over the past two years for testing positive for cannabis. Last year, the NSAC did begin reducing cannabis suspensions to six months or less. The NSAC suspended UFC fighter Bevon Lewis six months and fined him $1,200 on Wednesday for a positive drug test for cannabis. The California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) has recently begun fining fighters $100 for positive marijuana tests with no other sanction.