The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) announced on Thursday that it is formally removing marijuana from its newly modified banned substances list for athletes, building on an earlier reform.
While UFC says it is modeling its list of prohibited drugs after the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)—which has controversially maintained cannabis as a banned substance—it is making amendments “based on historical findings (i.e. marijuana removed from the prohibited list).”
Professional fighters have already been largely protected from being penalized over testing positive for THC under a policy change that UFC adopted in 2021, but now it is removing cannabis as a banned drug altogether.
“UFC’s goal for the Anti-Doping Policy is to be the best, most effective, and most progressive anti-doping program in all of professional sports,” UFC Chief Business Officer Hunter Campbell said in a press release on Thursday.
“UFC is proud of the advancements we have made with our anti-doping program over the past eight years, and we will continue to maintain an independently administered drug-testing program that ensures all UFC athletes are competing under fair and equal circumstances,” he said. “With this new iteration of the program, UFC has once again raised the bar for health and safety in combat sports.”
— UFC News (@UFCNews) December 29, 2023
The policy change—which will also involve entering into a partnership with the sample collection and shipping agency Drug Free Sport International (DFSI)—takes effect on Sunday, December 31.
Jeff Novitzky, UFC senior vice president of Athlete Health and Performance, said the updated anti-doping program “is the result of years of input and trial and error taken by UFC, our athletes, and third parties who have assisted UFC in operating the program.”
“The anti-doping policy is a living and breathing document that will continue to evolve and adapt when clear science supports changes that can further protect UFC athletes who compete in UFC,” he said.
Multiple sports organizations have moved to amend their marijuana testing policies for athletes amid the state legalization movement.
For example, in September, a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) committee formally recommended that its divisional governing bodies remove cannabis from the list of banned substances list for college athletes.
Over the summer, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and its players union signed a collective bargaining agreement that removes marijuana from the league’s banned substances list and lays out rules allowing players to invest in and promote cannabis brands—with certain exceptions.
Nevada sports regulators voted earlier this year to send a proposed regulatory amendment to the governor that would protect athletes from being penalized over using or possessing marijuana in compliance with state law.
The National Football League’s (NFL) drug testing policy changed demonstrably in 2020 as part of a collective bargaining agreement.
NFL and its players union also announced in June that they are jointly awarding another round of funding to support independent research on the therapeutic benefits of CBD as a pain treatment alternative to opioids for players with concussions.
The New York Media Softball League (NYMSL)—which has teams representing The Wall Street Journal, High Times and BuzzFeed among its ranks—announced in July that it was launching a sponsorship deal with a Kentucky-based CBD company.
The idea behind the collaboration was inspired by moves by Major League Baseball (MLB) and certain teams like the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs that have also recently partnered with CBD businesses.
MLB itself announced its league-wide partnership with a popular CBD brand last year. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, one of the most recognizable hemp-derived CBD companies in the country, signed the deal with league to become the “Official CBD of MLB.”
While advocates have welcomed these changes, there’s been criticism of the World Anti-Doping Agency over its ongoing cannabis ban. Members of a panel within the agency said in an opinion piece in August that marijuana use by athletes violates the “spirit of sport,” making them unfit role models whose potential impairment could put others at risk.
Advocates strongly urged WADA to enact a reform after U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from participating in Olympics events due to a positive THC test in 2021.
Following that suspension, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said that the international rules on marijuana “must change,” the White House and President Joe Biden himself signaled that it was time for new policies and congressional lawmakers amplified that message.
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.