MMA Doping Laws and Medical Marijuana – Are TUE’s the Answer?

The use of marijuana by licensed MMA athletes is in the news again now that it is reported that the Nevada State Athletic Commission has raised the testing threshold of marijuana metabolites from 50 ng/mL to 150 ng/mL.   This move is in line with the World Anti Doping Agency’s current policies who adopted the 150ng/mL standard as of May 11, 2013.  This change in policy, while perhaps a reflection of the times, does nothing to take away the penalties for athletes who test positive.  It simply creates a higher test threshold for a failing result.

The marijuana prohibition creates a conflict for combatants who are prescribed medical marijuana.   Even if you discontinue your marijuana use days prior to the competition such that you are not under the influence of the drug while competing  you may still fail their drug test.

If you are a medicinal marijuana user and don’t want to run afoul of the law what is the safest course of action?  Apart from discontinuing the drug’s use, obtaining a Therapeutic Use Exemption is an avenue worth exploring.   This is an option which should be available depending on the laws of the specific licencing jurisdiction.

I reached out to BC’s Athletic Commissioner who confirms that TUE’s for marijuana “would be looked at when brought forward and dealt with on an individual basis”.   Manitoba’s Commissioner also confirmed this possibility advising that “If a fighter meets the standard for a Therapeutic Use Exemption then I have no issue with it.”  Below is the breakdown of the framework for why a marijuana TUE is possible.  I should note that nothing in this article suggests that combatants should be allowed to compete while intoxicated, rather I am simply exploring a remedy that balances the rights of combatants who are lawfully prescribed marijuana against the regulatory need to look after combatant safety.

BC adopts WADA standards with respect to doping with section 21(2) of the BC Regulation reading as follows:

For the purpose of this regulation, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances and methods applies as amended from time to time

WADA’s current list of prohibited substances include cannabinoids.  Interestingly these are only prohibited “in competition” as opposed to the broader “out of competition” standard which outright bans the use of certain substances at any time.

Complying with this distinction is difficult if a medical marijuana user discontinues use prior to competition because the industry standard urine test searches for the presence of marijuana metabolites which can be detected many days after discontinued use.  This is possible even with WADA’s and the NSAC’s higher standards.    As illustrated by the Nick Diaz Marijuana experience , a combatant’s word that they discontinued use prior to competition may not be sufficient to get around a failed test.

The solution with medical marijuana is the same as with all prohibited substances, applying for a Therapuetic Use Exemption.   The WADA criteria for gaining a TUE are as follows:

The four criteria that must be fulfilled before a TUE is granted are set forth
in the International Standard for TUEs:
1. “The Athlete would experience a significant impairment to health if
the Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method were to be withheld in
the course of treating an acute or chronic medical condition.” (Article
4.1 a. of the International Standard for TUEs.)

2. “The Therapeutic Use of the Prohibited Substance or Prohibited
Method would produce no additional enhancement of performance
other than that which might be anticipated by a return to a state of
normal health following the treatment of a legitimate medical

3. “There is no reasonable Therapeutic alternative to the Use of the
otherwise Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method.” (Article 4.1
c of the International Standard for TUEs.)

4. “The necessity for the Use of the otherwise Prohibited Substance or
Prohibited Method cannot be a consequence, wholly or in part, of
prior non-Therapeutic Use of any Substance from the Prohibited
List.” (Article 4.1 d. of the International Standard for TUEs.)

With the correct medical evidentiary foundation there is no reason why TUE’s cannot be granted for medicinal marijuana.  Seeking a TUE is the safest course of action to give a medical marijuana using combatant clarity about whether continued use will run afoul of athletic commission requirements.  I reached out to Nevada State Athletic Commissioner Ketih Kizer who sensibly advises combatants “not to lie to the Commission about any relevant medication use.” and in the event a TUE is not granted  to take the practical step of “Quit smoking pot“.

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