Please stop pretending marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug.
It's a charade we've grown used to: an MMA fighter tests positive for marijuana, gets subsequently punished because marijuana is classified as a performance enhancing drug, and we all wonder where we can find the super-charged plant that helps you knock out Vitor Belfort in the first round. Yesterday, the Brazilian MMA Sports Court announced that UFC middleweight Kelvin Gastelum has been fined 20 percent of his purse and suspended for 90 days—retroactive to March 11—after testing positive for carboxy-THC, a metabolite of marijuana, in the wake of starching Belfort at UFC Fight Night 106. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency had provisionally suspended Gastelum last month, which led to shelving Gastelum's previously proposed fight with Anderson Silva and Silva threatening retirement. Gastelum isn't stoked either.
Faint praise before damnation: attitudes toward weed in MMA have improved a lot in a relatively short span of time. In 2016, Gastelum's fellow sometime-welterweight-sometime-middleweight Nick Diaz beat a five-year ban from the Nevada Athletic Commission and made the regulators look cruel in the process. Today, USADA doesn't test for marijuana outside of competition and established a fair 150 mg/nl in-competition threshold for the Carboxy-THC. Even "Big" John McCarthy evangelizes the medical and recuperative benefits of marijuana.
At the same time, most of us can agree that actually being stoned while fighting is unseemly, and if Gastelum smoked weed during USADA's in-competition window—which would have surely put him past the 150 mg/nl threshold—it only adds a few more brushstrokes to a portrait of an uncommonly talented athlete who is uncommonly immature. Even though he's 25 years old and 4-0 in his current division with heaps of promise, Gastelum's reputation after winning The Ultimate Fighter 17 tournament has been dogged by a history of missing weight—twice for 170-pound bouts that came to fruition, once for a match-up with Donald Cerrone that Gastelum was pulled from ahead of time. It's a bad look to add in puffing hours out from fight time, which is not at all the same as getting high and watching The Seven Five at the end of another monotonous day in training camp. That same criticism applies to Curtis Blaydes, Niko Price, and Abel Trujillo, three fighters who all tested positive for marijuana after UFC Fight Night 104 in March.
But while I'm in favor of overturning drug cheats' wins into losses, I can't get behind changing a win to a no contest just because a fighter won with THC in his veins. Doing so is a tacit admission that marijuana is a performance enhancing drug, but reasonable people know marijuana isn't performance enhancing in any traditional sense. USADA's language makes a tenuous case for weed's PED status: "[cannabis can] decrease anxiety and tension, resulting in better sport performance under pressure. In addition, cannabis can increase focus and risk-taking behaviors, allowing athletes to forget bad falls or previous trauma in sport, and push themselves past those fears in competition." By those measures, Zoloft—a prescription drug that can decrease anxiety and tension and increase focus—should be banned from competition, but it isn't.
Whatever advantages marijuana might provide MMA fighters are harder to calculate than those afforded by testosterone or EPO. I'd even argue that missing weight has greater potential to be a performance enhancer. Certainly, that's not always the case: when Gastelum weighed in at 180 pounds for a 170-pound fight with Tyron Woodley, wound up in the hospital on a Friday, and lost a split decision to Woodley on a Saturday, missing weight was a detriment. But it gets murkier when you remember Thiago Alves showing up four pounds over for his bout with Matt Hughes or, more recently, Alex Oliveira showing up six pounds over against Will Brooks. Both weight-cutting offenders scored decisive, brutal wins while looking obviously bulkier than their opponents.
Regulators have given extra scrutiny to addressing MMA's extreme weight-cutting practices, but until now it's been standard procedure to fine the offending fighter a percentage of his or her purse—no suspension, no fiddling with the results of the fight after it's done. That should also be the extent of punishment for fighters who test positive for weed during competition. A fine, which should increase for repeat offenders and accompany mandatory drug counseling, sends the message that smoking weed shortly before competition is both unprofessional and potentially hazardous to the smoker's health when fists start flying.
But abandoning the practice of turning a fight result from a win to a no contest sends another message that's just as important: getting stoned before fighting a former champion on his home turf might be a bad idea, but it isn't cheating.