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UFC fighters will now see reduced sanctions for violations as a result of recreational drugs such as cannabis following the approval of changes to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Code at the entity’s recent anti-doping conference in Katowice, Poland. The changes, which immediately found their way into the UFC’s United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA)-led anti-doping policy, could see cannabis-related sanctions reduced as short as one month, or even waived outright.

Recreational drugs such as marijuana or cocaine, or “substances of abuse,” as WADA labels them, are largely prohibited during the in-competition window under the WADA Code. Now, under the approved changes, in situations where an athlete can demonstrate that the use was out of competition and was recreational use as opposed to for the purposes of performance enhancement, there is now the potential for a significant reduction to, or even the waiving of, any suspension received by an athlete upon completion of drug awareness courses.

WADA spokesman James Fitzgerald clarified the changes this month in a statement to Cycling Weekly.

“During the extensive two-year review process for the 2021 version of the World Anti-Doping Code, we received considerable stakeholder feedback related to substances of abuse, such as cocaine or cannabis. It was felt that the use of these drugs was often unrelated to sport performance,” said Fitzgerald.

“While the code does not prohibit the use of these drugs out of competition, sometimes a presence is detected at an in-competition test even though the use occurred in a social context with no effect.

It was felt also that in cases where an athlete has a drug problem and is not seeking or benefiting from performance enhancement, the priority should be on the athlete’s health rather than on imposing a lengthy sporting sanction.”

While the new guidelines will not be formally adopted into the WADA Code until its publication in 2021, USADA made the changes immediate in the UFC program by expanding upon a clause regarding drugs of abuse.

The UFC’s updated prohibited list considers substances of abuse as:

  • Cannabinoids: Natural, e.g. cannabis, hashish, and marijuana, or synthetic 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC); Cannabimimetics, e.g. “Spice”, JWH-018, JWH-073, HU-210.
  • Narcotics: Buprenorphine; Dextromoramide; Diamorphine (heroin); Fentanyl and its derivatives; Hydromorphone; Methadone; Morphine; Nicomorphine; Oxycodone; Oxymorphone; Pentazocine; Pethidine.
  • Stimulants: Cocaine, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, “ecstasy”), dimethylamphetamine (DMA), benzylpiperazine (BZP), methamphetamine (D-), p-methylamphetamine, methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA).

And 10.6 of the anti-doping policy, in turn, was changed to give provision for a complete waiver of any suspension:

“When a violation of Articles 2.1 or 2.2 involves a Substance of Abuse and the Athlete can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the violation did not enhance, and was not intended to enhance, the Athlete’s performance in a Bout, then, the period of Ineligibility may be reduced or eliminated, as determined by USADA in its sole discretion based upon the Athlete’s participation in a rehabilitation program.”

In total, four fighters have incurred violations as a result of cannabis use under the UFC-USADA program. In 2016, Brazilian featherweight Diego Brandao was the first fighter penalized for the substance, as he received a nine-month suspension that was reduced to six months after his positive test. Since then, two fighters, UFC interim welterweight title challenger Kelvin Gastelum and Macedonian middleweight Alen Amedovski, saw their suspensions reduced from six months to three months following successful completion of drug abuse education, while strawweight contender Cynthia Calvillo was suspended for six months.

One UFC fighter, England’s Brad Scott, received a two-year suspension after testing positive for Benzoylecgonine, a cocaine metabolite. Cocaine sanctions would also fall under the new guidelines, where, provided that the use was consistent with recreational, out of competition use and was not intended to improve performance, the suspension would be reduced.

The newly-adopted changes to the UFC’s anti-doping agency are thought by many to be a long-overdue, common-sense approach to athletes who use recreational drugs outside of sport. The biggest issue facing USADA and the UFC in administering shorter penalties will be consistency, as some of the athletic commissions (such as the state of Texas’) under whose sanctioning the UFC falls still maintain what are widely-considered archaic penalties for positive tests involving cannabis and other substances.

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