UFC Removes Cannabis from Banned Substances List in New Policy

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) announced the details of its new Anti-Doping Policy, which took effect for all UFC athletes beginning Dec. 31, 2023, and with it comes a progressive stance on cannabis, reflecting a larger trend of reviewing cannabis policy and bans in sports.

The UFC announced that it will remove cannabis from its banned substances list, mirroring a larger shift in the world of sports and cannabis use.

The ruling comes after the UFC’s 2021 decision that cannabis would no longer be penalized for testing positive for THC. The policy deemed that positive tests for carboxy-THC, a THC metabolite, would no longer be considered a violation “unless additional evidence exists that an athlete used it intentionally for performance-enhancing purposes.”

According to a statement from UFC Chief Business Officer Hunter Campbell, the newest iteration of the program raises “the bar for health and safety in combat sports.” 

Campbell highlighted the UFC’s goal for its Anti-Doping Policy to be “the best, most effective, and most progressive anti-doping program in all of professional sports,” adding that the UFC is proud of the advancements it’s made in the policy throughout the past eight years. Campbell affirmed that the UFC will continue to maintain an “independently administered drug-testing program” to ensure that all UFC athletes will compete under fair and equal circumstances.

UFC Senior Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance Jeff Novitzky similarly nodded to the new policy as a means to protect competitors, citing that the new program came about after “years of input and trial and error taken by UFC, our athletes, and third parties who have assisted UFC in operating the program.” 

Similarly, Novitzky noted that the policy is a “living and breathing document” that will continue to evolve and adapt in the future. 

The move continues the pattern of changing policy regarding cannabis, THC and CBD in the sports world.

The National Football League (NFL) has drastically altered its cannabis testing procedures over the years. The NFL reworked its policy in 2021 so players would no longer be drug tested for THC during the offseason from April to August. The testing period was also reduced, so players would only be tested for THC between the start of training camp and the first preseason game.

The NFL also changed the threshold for a failed THC test, from 35 ng/ml to 150 ng/ml. If a player does exceed the threshold for a test, they will also no longer be suspended. Rather, the NFL now looks toward treatment rather than punishment; the intervention program’s first stage involves a review of the case by a panel of medical experts to determine if the player needs treatment for addiction and suggest appropriate care. 

Only players who don’t follow the proposed medical treatment are fined and moved to stage two. Further failure to comply could lead to suspension.

Most recently, the National Basketball Association (NBA) also removed cannabis from its list of banned substances. The new collective bargaining agreement went into effect on July 1, 2023 also allows the league’s players to use cannabis and invest in cannabis companies under specific circumstances. 

The new contract notes that players cannot be high at games, practices or other team functions, and any cannabis use that becomes problematic will still be subject to action from the NBA.

Despite these changes, the World Anti-Doping Agency has maintained its ban on cannabis, in that it “has the potential to enhance sport performance; it represents a health risk to the athlete; and it violates the spirit of sport.” This rule drew particularly strong backlash recently when U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for a positive cannabis test.

Given the physical nature of these sports, reform on cannabis policy is often seen as a progressive approach in allowing athletes to seek out specific care to best treat injuries and prevent further harm to their bodies. 

A growing number of retired athletes have shared that they used cannabis during their active years to treat aches and pains, and growing research has confirmed the efficacy of cannabis in treating athletic injuries and maintaining a sense of health for sports professionals.

In a recent survey, 93% of athletic participants said they felt CBD helped them with recovery from exercise while 87% said the same about THC. Researchers noted that “Individuals who habitually use cannabis, CBD or THC, and regularly engage in exercise do feel that cannabis assists them with exercise recovery.”

Another survey examining the opinions of sports medicine doctors showed that most have favorable attitudes about cannabis use — 72% of respondents supported the 2018 removal of CBD from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substances list, while 59% supported removing cannabis as a whole. A majority of respondents also said that they believe CBD and THC are not performance enhancing (approximately 76% and 66%, respectively).

A 2023 study even found that regular cannabis use has the potential to offset repeated blows to the head, showing potential promise for professional athletes like boxers, football and soccer players seeking to reduce the risk of long-term brain damage.

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