The recent suspension of UFC fighter Nick Diaz for use of marijuana was met with significant backlash from both fans and fighters alike, who widely believe that marijuana is not a performance enhancing drug (PED) and that its use should not be banned in sport.
Furthermore, Diaz’s ban has sparked added confusion and anger over the matter that fighters who have tested positive for substances such as cocaine or steroids have faced far lesser punishments.
Diaz, 32, in fact holds a medicinal marijuana card in California, adding weight to the notion that he should not be penalized for use of the medicinal substance. However, this medicinal usage is not currently recognized by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA). Now, having failed a third drug test due to marijuana use, Diaz has been suspended from competition for 5 years by the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC), complete with a $165,000 fine as 33% of his $500,000 fight purse from January 31.
Former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, Diaz’s opponent on January 31, was handed a 1 year suspension for steroid use in relation to the same fight. In addition, former UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones was flagged by a drug test for use of cocaine in early 2015, but escaped suspension due to the examination being part of an “out-of-competition” drug test.
So why is marijuana on the banned substance list?
In fact, marijuana, which is not usually thought of by athletes and general public as a performance enhancing drug, still meets 2 out of the 3 criteria to render it a banned substance under WADA definitions.
IMMAF anti-doping consultant, Michele Verroken of Sporting Integrity, explained WADA’s reasoning behind marijuana’s status in sport and the reaction it has received:
“Firstly, with respect to marijuana, it’s inclusion on the WADA prohibited list is controversial. On so many occasions the question about its impact on performance has been questioned. A substance is added to the list if it meets 2 of 3 criteria:
· Ability to or actual potential to enhance performance
· Ability to or actual potential to harm health
· Contravenes the spirit of sport.
“Marijuana is regarded as meeting at least the last two criteria. This is a possibility for some sports, in relaxing an athlete and improving their capacity to perform dangerous/tense tasks (ski jumping, darts, motor racing, shooting), often with potential to cause danger to others. Due to objection, WADA actually revised its approach during 2013 and raised the laboratory reporting level from 15ng/ml to 150 ng/ml, thereby picking up only ‘on the day of testing’ use. Testing of marijuana is likewise focussed on competition time tests. So the argument that an athlete under the influence of marijuana might endanger others could be applied, and that testing protects other participants if it is discovered or dissuades its use.”
It appears that the view of marijuana as an illegal street drug may have informed WADA’s decision. It could be argued that the medicinal use of marijuana, as used by athletes such as Diaz quite legally elsewhere, does not fit the criteria that defines a banned substance under WADA.
Verroken agrees that the ban handed to Diaz is severe. However this could be explained by that fact that Diaz is a repeat offender, and that he may even have been fortunate to not be facing an even harsher penalty.
“The sanction is rather severe. I can only presume that the athlete’s previous doping history is what led the decision to penalise beyond the usual WADA Code sanction for marijuana. One might say that the NSAC has been lenient as WADA Code sanctions for a third offence would always be a life ban unless elimination or reduction clauses applied (no fault or negligence). If this reduction applied it would be 8 years.”
UFC President Dana White has reserved comment for the most part, simply stating via Twitter:
“What I think isn’t important. I have no say in the matter…..People who know MMA know that.”