UFC fighters are subject to testing by the relevant government regulatory body once a contract is signed for a specific locale, and year-round by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Out of competition, the tests are for performance-enhancing drugs. In competition, the test targets can include recreational drugs. No one wants anyone fighting while high on meth, but cannabis has long been a contentious issue.
It's unclear how long cannabis stays in the human body, and all the more so given the potential effects of dehydration. Curtis Blaydes has only lost to Francis Ngannou, twice. But he had a win taken away from him by the Combative Sports program administered by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, after he tested positive for cannabis use over 15ng/mL. Depending on what study you look at, 15ng/mL indicates use up to 10, 20, or even 30 days out. The threshold in Nevada is a far less unhinged 150 ng/mL.
In a major step towards sanity, USADA has stopped testing entirely for cannabis. A common reaction to complaints about cannabis testing in MMA is that rules are rules and lots of jobs have them and the right thing to do is quit. But as UFC vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky explained in a January interview with MMA Fighting's great Damon Martin, it's more complex than that.
“When I get those calls weeks out from a fight, fighters that use marijuana say ‘Jeff, when should I stop to make sure I’m under the level?’ said Novitzky. “What some of those stories include are ‘I choose to use marijuana in lieu of opioids for pain management, in lieu of Xanax to control my anxiety, in lieu of Ambien so I can sleep because I’m so damn nervous before a fight.’ It bothered me a lot that the rules in anti-doping really direct these fighters towards more dangerous drugs, the closer they get to fights.
“Because things like certain opioids, Xanax, and Ambien are allowed at all times. They aren’t prohibited. I felt horrible passing that information along to fighters saying ‘get off the marijuana but you’re good taking Xanax, Ambien, and Vicodin before a fight.’ It’s not right.”
Novitzky advocated strongly for the removal of cannabis, and finally succeeded, at least with USADA. It will take years for some government commissions to catch up. But Blaydes is naturally positive about the USADA improvement.
“It’s about time,” said Blaydes, again to Martin for MMA Fighting. “It’s not a big deal and it hasn’t ever been a big deal. It’s just an archaic group of people at the top who didn’t understand that weed isn’t the issue. Weed isn’t going to help you beat someone. If anything, it’s going to hurt you.”
“Wouldn’t you rather have your athletes doing a natural way to help with the aches and bruises besides all the pills? Pills are worse for your body, they’re worse for the athletes. You get a better product as a league or organization when you don’t focus your energy on something that isn’t a problem.
“All the major sports leagues around the world, the NHL, the NBA, the MLB, the NFL, removed it from their banned substances list because they realized they’d rather have their athletes smoking or using the creams or the drops and all that as opposed to getting hooked on opioids.”
“I thought they were supposed to look for performance-enhancing drugs? This is not a performance-enhancing drug. Just off the definition of your job, why are you worried about marijuana? ... Change is on the horizon. I don’t know how long it’s going to take but that was the first brick.”
Blaydes fights Derrick Lewis in the main event of UFC Vegas 19 on Saturday night.