In most jurisdictions cannabis is banned in-competition for combat sports athletes. Generally this means that an athlete cannot consume cannabis in the 24 hours prior to competition but otherwise consumption is not considered an anti-doping violation.
The problem, however, is there is no satisfactory test which proves in-competition use. Instead regulators adopt thresholds which are ‘deemed’ to be in-competition use. If you exceed those thresholds you are guilty even if you discontinued days or weeks prior to competition. This has led to fines, penalties, lengthy suspensions and the stigma of a doping violation to athletes who actually complied with the rules. Such a result becomes particularly problematic in the context of athletes who use cannabis medicinally who face an uncertain window of when they must discontinue use to comply with the rules.
Cannabis remains a banned substance not so much because regulators and anti-doping authorities believe it is a performance enhancing substance but moreseo as a throwback to war on drugs type regulation. With cannabis becoming legal both recreationally and medicinally in increasing North American jurisdictions this mentality is slowly being revisited. WADA recently removed CBD as a prohibited substance. Some athletic commissions have drastically reduced their penalties for marijuana violations. While there is progress the stigma and penalties for a positive drug test remain.
In 2013 I discussed the possibility of athletes seeking Therapeutic Use Exemptions (“TUE)” for cannabis as a solution to this problem. As announced by UFC veteran Elias Theodorou I am pleased to report that the BC Athletic Commission granted what I believe to be the first ever TUE for cannabis in the combat sports setting.
Theodorou, one of Canada’s most decorated mixed martial artists, has a well documented medical relationship with cannabis. He proactively applied for a TUE with the BC Athletic Commission who were satisfied that applicable medical criteria were met and now approved him with this welcome exemption.
It should be stressed that a TUE for cannabis in-competition is not a permission slip to compete impaired. To the contrary Theodorou, just as any other athlete, cannot be impaired in the lead up to competition otherwise a commission would be within their rights to pull the athlete from their bout. The TUE simply ensures that if Theodorou tests above the otherwise applicable ceiling for deemed in-competition use he will not be guilty of a doping violation. In other words he will be able to use medicinal cannabis as prescribed, discontinue at an identified time period and have the security that his measurable levels will not lead to a doping violation.
Proactivity with athletic commissions is the right move for athletes with unique medicinal needs. Both Theodorou and the BC Athletic Commission deserve recognition for taking this progressive step and navigating a complex anti-doping issue fairly.