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Can MMA Fighters Smoke Weed?

Marijuana usage in MMA is nothing new. Many fighters have openly admitted to being recreational smokers. The most notable of these are the Diaz brothers, who have made their smoking habit a part of their fighting lifestyle and brand. But what does the UFC think of its fighters smoking weed? Is it banned? Do they even care? Well in this post, I’m going to address everything you need to know about weed usage as a UFC fighter.

Can MMA fighters smoke weed?

In short yes, fighters are allowed to smoke weed outside of competition. However, the THC blood levels must be below 150 ng/mL by the time they are tested the week of their fight. In January 2021, the UFC announced that a positive test for THC will no longer be considered a doping violation.

Of course, there are still different rules for each state’s athletic commission that are often more stringent than the UFC is regarding marijuana use. In the rest of this post, I’ll cover how the rules differ from state to state, as well as how the UFC has loosened its restrictions over time.

The Current Status Of Weed In MMA

So first, let’s cover the status of weed in the eyes of the UFC. The UFC’s drug testing has been handled by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) since July 1st, 2015. Since then, USADA has tested all of the UFC athletes for performance enhancing drugs, on top of any testing already done by the state athletic commissions where the fight is being held.

The UFC started their partnership with USADA back in 2015, in order to make the sport more fair.
The UFC started their partnership with USADA back in 2015, in order to make the sport more fair.

USADA’s stance on weed had been quite lax even before 2021. Initially, fighters were allowed to use marijuana recreationally outside of competition, as long as it was out of their system by the time they compete. This means that as long as a fighter stopped smoking a few weeks before their fight, they should pass their drug test.

THC is the psychoactive component in marijuana, meaning it's the comppound that gets you high. It is also typically the substance for which fighters are suspended when referring to weed.
THC is the psychoactive component in marijuana, meaning it’s the comppound that gets you high. It is also typically the substance for which fighters are suspended when referring to weed.

However this is only in regards to THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana. Both THC and CBD were prohibited under USADA rules until 2018, when use of CBD became permissible both in and out of competition.

Current Status Of CBD In MMA

Cannabidiol, which is commonly known as CBD, is currently allowed under USADA rules at any time, whether in or out of competition. This change came in 2018, as before this, fighters were not allowed to use CBD within a four hour window of their fight.

However, the rule change came after UFC fighter Nate Diaz was seen inhaling CBD through the use of a vape pen, after his fight at UFC 202 with Conor McGregor. Jeff Novitzky (Senior VP of Athlete Health and Performance) who works closely with USADA, was informed of this potential doping violation, as Diaz’s use of CBD was clearly within the four hour window.

Senior VP of Athlete Health and Performance Jeff Novitzky, who worked closely with USADA in regaards to Nate Diaz's potential CBD violation.
Senior VP of Athlete Health and Performance Jeff Novitzky, who worked closely with USADA in regards to Nate Diaz’s potential CBD violation.

On an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience, Novitzky recalled USADA alerting him of the situation. However, Novitzky informed USADA that the intent of the four-hour rule was to allow USADA time to collect a sample in the case that they could not collect one immediately after the fight, which they had already collected for Diaz.

After this incident, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) determined that CBD would no longer be considered a performance-enhancing drug, and that it would remove CBD from its list of banned substances. USADA follows the same banned substances list as WADA, meaning a fighter could now use CBD at any point, including weigh-ins and on fight night.

Nate Diaz vaping CBD at the UFC 202 post-fight press conference.
Nate Diaz vaping CBD at the UFC 202 post-fight press conference.

Following the announcement of what came to be known as the ‘Nate Diaz Rule’ allowing CBD in competition, Nate Diaz launched his own brand of CBD products called GameUp Nutrition. Many fighters showed appreciation towards Nate for his role in creating the rule change.

CBD is a fairly self explanatory one, as there seem to be no significant performance benefits for the fighters, aside from helping them with anxiety and inflammation. Now let’s talk about the status of THC in the UFC.

The Status Of THC In MMA

THC has had more stringent rules against it since USADA joined forces with the UFC.

According to the Marijuana page of the USADA Official Website, the urinary threshold for THC is set at 150 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL). This means that any sample collected with a THC content of more than 150 ng/mL will result in a positive test, and is considered a doping violation.

Joe Rogan has stated that smoking weed makes him more creative when grappling, and WADA seems to feel similarly.
Joe Rogan has stated that smoking weed makes him more creative when grappling, and WADA seems to feel similarly.

WADA released a paper in 2011 explaining why THC is on the banned substances list:

“Athletes who smoke cannabis or Spice in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making… Based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.” – Representatives of WADA in “Cannabis in Sport: Anti-Doping Perspective”.

So according to WADA, THC is considered a banned substance because there is evidence to suggest both that a fighter can endanger themselves while under the influence and that it may serve as a performance enhancing drug.

USADA has had several UFC fighters test positive for THC, and have handed out suspensions each time. On the USADA website, you can find a list of every UFC fighter who has been subject to a doping violation. On the list, there are only three cases of THC violations: Diego Brandao in 2016, Kelvin Gastelum in 2017, and Cynthia Calvillo in 2018.

Gastelum and Calvillo were handed 6-month suspensions, with Brandao receiving a 9-month suspension.

Nate Diaz smoking during the UFC 241 open workouts.
Nate Diaz smoking during the UFC 241 open workouts.

However, all this has changed as of January 2021. On January 14th, the UFC officially announced that they would be altering their rules regarding THC as a prohibited substance. According to the UFC website, “carboxy-THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, will no longer be considered a violation of the UFC Anti-Doping Policy, unless additional evidence exists that an athlete used it intentionally for performance-enhancing purposes.”

This means that a fighter is now essentially allowed to smoke weed at any point before or after their fight, without receiving a doping violation from USADA or the UFC. Jeff Novitzky stated that the UFC is more concerned with what a fighter is consuming the night of the fight, not weeks before. Such was the case with their previous cases of fighters that tested positive for THC, and so the UFC decided to no longer consider a THC content over 150 ng/mL as a positive test.

Although the UFC and USADA will no longer issue suspensions for recreational marijuana use, state athletic commissions can still fine or suspend fighters for smoking weed, as they operate separately from the UFC.

For those who aren’t aware, a fighter not only has to comply with rules for the organization (the UFC) but also for the athletic commission for the state they are fighting in. Because this includes drug testing, a fighter may be suspended by an athletic commission even if USADA and the UFC think otherwise.

How Marijuana Rules Are Applied By Athletic Commissions

Unfortunately for UFC fighters, the athletic commission can still hold them liable for a positive THC test. Like USADA, athletic commissions also follow standards set by the World Anti-Doping Agency. However, since the UFC pays USADA to implement its drug testing, the UFC can decide whether or not to enforce certain substances.

WADA is the organization that sets the standard for substances that are considered performance enhancers.
WADA is the organization that sets the standard for substances that are considered performance enhancers.

In contrast, the athletic commissions are independent governing bodies that sanction MMA events. This means they follow their own rules, without input from the UFC. Let’s take the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) for example. Since many UFC events are held in Las Vegas, this would be the corresponding sanctioning body for those events.

The NSAC is still clearly prohibiting the use of THC by the fighters. On the NSAC’s official site, the link to prohibited substances leads directly to the WADA website, meaning that the NSAC strictly follows WADA’s list of what they consider to be performance enhancing drugs.

UFC referee Herb Dean, seen here working for the Nevada Athletic Commission.
UFC referee Herb Dean, seen here working for the Nevada Athletic Commission.

As recently as December 2020, the NSAC handed UFC fighter Niko Price a six-month suspension, as well as a fine of $8,500. On top of that, his bout with Donald Cerrone was overturned from a Majority Draw to a No Contest.

The harshest part of this punishment is the overturning of results, as changing a fighters potential win to a ‘No Contest’ can have a huge impact on their career. However, the NSAC used to be even more strict with its marijuana ban. Back in 2015, Nick Diaz tested positive for marijuana metabolites after his fight with Anderson Silva at UFC 183.

The NSAC gave Nick a suspension of 5 years, along with a $165,000 fine. Even after he appealed the decision, he was still held liable for a suspension of 18 months and a fine of $100,000.

Nick Diaz seen here exiting the court room after receiving his 5-year suspension, where he expressed his frustration with the commission.
Nick Diaz seen here exiting the court room after receiving his 5-year suspension, where he expressed his frustration with the commission.

The NSAC used to have a lower threshold for urinary THC levels. Initially, the NSAC considered anything over 50 ng/mL an adverse finding. In 2013 they decided to raise the limit to 150 ng/mL, matching WADA’s threshold. All this to say, MMA fighters can smoke weed outside of competition, but the athletic commission will hold them liable for an adverse finding on fight night.

Conclusion

That’s pretty much the breakdown to the rules regarding marijuana use in mixed-martial arts competition. So to summarize this post:

In short yes, MMA fighters are allowed to smoke weed outside of competition. However, most state athletic commissions require fighters to have a THC urinary level below 150 ng/mL on the day of the fight. CBD use is allowed both during and outside of competition.

Thats all there is to say about marijuana use in MMA and the UFC. I hope this post cleared up any questions you had regarding the subject. If you enjoyed the post, consider checking out similar articles on the Martial Arts History page. Thanks for reading!