As Olympic level drug testing attempts to make its way into more mainstream pro sports, one of the biggest hiccups has been the number of pot suspensions in the UFC.
As the UFC continues on as one of the only places top athletes are still competing — no hate to the Bundesliga — professional mixed martial artists have had mixed results in adjusting their lifestyles to the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s testing protocols in the years since the UFC made the move to stricter drug testing policies.
Last month, when SoCal’s Kelvin Gastelum (half of 2019’s Fight of The Year) got popped for too much THC in his system, testing was right back in the news.
USADA announced that Gastelum had received a nine-month suspension for testing positive for 11-nor-9-carboxy-tetrahydrocannabinol above the allowed threshold. This was The Ultimate Fighter 17 winner’s second time getting busted for THC.
“Gastelum’s nine-month period of ineligibility began on November 3, 2019, the date his positive sample was collected,” USADA said in the announcement. “Based on Gastelum’s successful completion of a drug treatment program, his period of ineligibility was reduced by five months.”
We hit up USADA to find out what it’s like adjusting to the new era of legal cannabis, especially given they are watching it happen outside USADA headquarters in Colorado.
Not long after we reached out to USADA, The Athletic released a survey of 170 professional fighters. They found 45.9 percent currently used pot recreationally or for medical purposes. Another 4.7 percent regularly used cannabis at some point in the past.
We heard back on our questions from USADA’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Matthew Fedoruk. In addition to his role at USADA, Fedoruk serves as a standing member of the International Federations and National Paralympic Committees Anti-Doping Committee, the Athlete Biological Passport Ad-Hoc Working Group, and the World Anti-Doping Agency TDSSA Expert Group Chair. Fedoruk also serves as co-chair of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Partnership for Clean Competition. So generally, he spends a bit more time on things a bit more advanced than the grass but was kind enough to give us his take on how pot policy shifts impacted testing in recent years.
L.A. WEEKLY: How has the age of cannabis legalization impacted the way you guys and WADA develop regulations around cannabinoids, especially with your front row seat in Colorado?
MATTHEW FEDORUK: The WADA Prohibited List is the list of banned substances and methods adopted by World Anti-Doping Code signatories, including USADA. In recent years, there have been some modifications to cannabinoids category to reflect the exclusion of cannabidiol specifically. Since natural and synthetic cannabinoids are prohibited in-competition only due to the potential impact on athletic performance, there remains a focus on fairness and athlete health and safety while competing. Under the 2021 World Anti-Doping Code, cannabinoids are classified as substances of abuse if an athlete can establish the use occurred outside of competition and was unrelated to sport performance. In order to prioritize the athlete’s health, sanctions can be reduced to one-month by completing a rehabilitation program.
What does a treatment program look like for athletes who test positive for THC since so much cannabis use in sports is self-medicating as part of the recovery process as opposed to abuse. How would it compare to a treatment program for something like cocaine?
USADA is currently working with addiction and drug treatment specialists in the US to develop a network of highly qualified treatment providers that will be appropriately qualified to evaluate, develop and monitor drug treatment programs for all substances of abuse that are best suited to the athlete and their specific situation.
How do you certify the recovery program so in more well-off sports the athlete can’t buy his/her way through treatment in hopes of getting a reduction?
USADA is taking the approach of working with scientific and medical experts to make sure the treatment programs are fit-for-purpose. We work closely with each treatment provider to obtain progress reports and other information to ensure that the athlete is successfully completing the high quality program they have agreed to.
Any concerns about athletes using more dangerous synthetic cannabinoids in hopes of beating tests?
MF: USADA continues to monitor the availability of synthetic cannabinoids while working closely with the independent accredited anti-doping laboratories to ensure screening methods for these novel synthetic cannabinoids are included in testing methods where appropriate. USADA is also exploring the utility of alternative collection matrices like oral fluid and dried blood spots that could better support the results management process for in-competition prohibited substances including cannabinoids.