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UFC cannabis policy update: A catalyst for cultural change?

Article-UFC cannabis policy update: A catalyst for cultural change?

© iStock/Andy___Gin UFC cannabis policy update: A catalyst for cultural change?
As the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) removes marijuana from its list of banned substances, is this the start of a new era for cannabis use in sports?

UFC, the world’s premier mixed martial arts organisation, last month announced details of its new anti-doping policy, the goal of which is to be the best, most effective, and most progressive anti-doping programme in all of professional sports”.

Some commentators have argued that the update, which came into effect on 31 December, could act as a catalyst for change in how other sports and regulatory bodies manage cannabis use.

Stephen Murphy, CEO and co-founder of the B2B cannabis platform Prohibition Partners, told Vitafoods Insights: “A move towards greater consistency in anti-doping regulations may be on the horizon, fostering a more uniform approach to drug testing and sanctions across different sports and countries.

Cannabis policy update just one piece in an ‘intricate puzzle’

The move follows an earlier change in 2021, which widely protected UFC fighters from being penalised if they tested positive for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

It reflects a growing understanding of the benefits of medical marijuana for athletes, with players turning to products containing cannabidiol (CBD) and/or THC to enhance exercise recovery and manage pain.

The decision is likely to have implications for many UFC athletes: a 2020 survey of 170 professional MMA fighters by The Athletic found that 45.9% of respondents said they used marijuana for either recovery or recreational purposes.  

Murphy agreed that the world of professional sports was “changing rapidly”, with a series of “significant shifts in drug policies.

However, he added: The decision by UFC to alter its stance on certain substances and the recent update to the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) prohibited list for 2023 are just a few pieces in this intricate puzzle.

Basketball and track stars among athletes championing change

WADA’s decision last year to approve the updated prohibited list sparked discussions about the criteria for banned substances and sent ripples across sports organisations, Murphy said.

He gave the example of basketball star Kevin Durant, who last year championed the removal of cannabis from the NBA banned substances list. NBA players are no longer prohibited from using the drug.

“His advocacy for a more lenient approach to cannabis in professional sports aligns with a broader societal shift towards destigmatising the drug,” Murphy explained.This change not only reflects a more progressive outlook within the NBA but also highlights the growing influence that prominent athletes wield in shaping policies.

He also highlighted the case of track and field sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson, who faced a ban from the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 after testing positive for THC.

“She has been actively engaged in reshaping the drug policies within US Track and Field. Her vocal stance on the matter has contributed to ongoing discussions about fairness, health, and the need for a more compassionate approach to athletes' wellbeing,” said Murphy.

“The dominos are undeniably falling, and they gain momentum when heavyweight stakeholders, such as Durant and Richardson, champion change… The removal of cannabis from banned substances lists and the re-evaluation of anti-doping measures mark a departure from a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach.

“Instead, there is a growing acknowledgement that the use of certain substances requires a more nuanced understanding, considering factors like societal acceptance, medicinal benefits, and potential risks.

WADA decision could influence policies ‘on a worldwide scale

Asked whether the decision was reflective of societal attitudes more generally, Murphy replied: “The changes in drug policies also spark discussions about international harmonisation. The global nature of sports suggests that decisions made by organisations like WADA influence policies on a worldwide scale.

© iStock/Baramee Temboonkiat A catalyst for cultural change?

As for the growing evidence for the role of marijuana in sports, Murphy said: The interesting statement from UFC stated that the updated anti-doping programme ‘is the result of years of input and trial and error taken by UFC’. This highlights the requirement to constantly review policies as society moves forward and acknowledge that there is a shelf life to specific policies.

“There will always be debate, but [it is] important that [this is] backed up with scientific rationale, not on fear or stigma.