WADA Changes Marijuana Testing Policy, State Commissions Could Be Next

Damon MartinContributor IMay 16, 2013

February 4, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; UFC fighter Carlos Condit (left) fights against Nick Diaz (right) during UFC 143 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Carlos Codit defeated Nick Diaz. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Testing for marijuana in mixed martial arts has become one of the hottest subjects over the last few years.  Fighters have tested positive for the drug numerous times, but as marijuana becomes a more socially and legally accepted substance, the rules surrounding the testing processes have come under fire.

Most recently, UFC 159 fighter Pat Healy tested positive for marijuana, which changed his win over Jim Miller to a no-contest. He also lost $130,000 in bonus money he earned for Fight of the Night and Submission of the Night due to the UFC's new policy that no fighter can win post-fight bonuses if he tests positive for drugs.

While some proponents for marijuana want to see the drug not even restricted by testing bodies like state athletic commissions, at the very least most agree that the testing policies should be changed.

Even UFC vice president of regulatory affairs Marc Ratner has spoken out about changes that should be made regarding the use of marijuana in sports like MMA.

"Society is changing, it's a different world now than when I was on the commission.  States are legalizing marijuana and it's becoming more and more of a problem with fighters testing positive and the metabolites," said Ratner when speaking in front of the Nevada State Athletic Commission in March.  "I think it's something that has to be discussed on a commission level now.  Right now I just cannot believe that a performance enhancing drug and marijuana can be treated the same.  It just doesn't make sense to the world anymore and it's something that has to be brought up."

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which oversees drug testing for events such as the Olympics, generally sets the standard in determining drugs that should be deemed as performance enhancing, drugs of abuse or otherwise.  WADA also sets the limits for the amount of a substance that can be found in an athlete before the test triggers a red flag.

According to Play True magazine, during a May 11 meeting, WADA's Executive Committee voted to increase the threshold for marijuana testing.  The previous limit of 15 ng/mL was raised to a higher threshold of 150 ng/mL.

Starting on May 11, any tests conducted by WADA that do not trigger a result at or above 150 ng/mL will not be considered a positive test for THC, the active ingredient tested for in marijuana.

So how does this ruling potentially affect mixed martial arts?

WADA is seen as the gold standard for testing policies on a worldwide level, but each individual state commission sets its own limits regarding substances such as marijuana.  For instance, prior to the May 11 ruling, WADA flagged a test for anything above 15 ng/mL, whereas Nevada has had its limit at 50 ng/mL for more than a decade.

The nanogram levels that trigger a red flag are based on the initial test for the drug.  A typical analysis includes two separate tests.

The first test looks for the nanogram levels that would be above a certain amount to flag a positive result.  A second test is then run on the sample, looking specifically at the levels for the metabolite Delta-9-THC, which is the major psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

This new ruling by WADA to increase the acceptable nanogram levels in the initial testing phase could mark major changes to marijuana testing at state commissions, which oversee mixed martial arts competitions.

According to Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer, who spoke with Bleacher Report on Thursday, the WADA ruling doesn't technically affect the state commission's own testing limits, but it increases the chances that rules may soon change.

The Nevada commission was already planning on holding a hearing later this month to discuss the possibility of changing the marijuana testing rules for athletic competitions.  This new WADA rule only strengthens the chances that the commission will recommend at the very least a higher level allowed when testing for marijuana.

"Going forward I mean we already did this once going from 15 ng to 50 ng about 10 years ago.  I know this is something the panel will look at," Kizer stated.  "They are already looking at going from 50 to something else, but this kind of cuts down on their homework."

The panel that will hopefully meet during a tentatively scheduled May 31 meeting will then make a recommendation that will be taken to the full commission for a vote.  Kizer is quick to point out that while WADA did change its testing limits, it did not vote to eliminate marijuana as a restricted drug, so it's not likely any commissions will overstep that particular boundary.

"It both strengthened the anti-marijuana stance by saying we're still going to have it as the same prohibitive substance, but it also lessened it by also saying we're going to try to fine tune the test to make it over 150 as opposed to 15," Kizer stated.

Once the panel meets and comes up with a recommendation, it will likely land on the June or July agenda for the Nevada commission to vote on, and then the change would go into effect. 

The next step for Nevada will be the panel discussion likely to happen later this month, and a new testing limit could be set by the end of summer.  While all commissions are able to set forth their own rules regarding testing, Nevada acts as one of the national leaders in the industry when it comes to policies regarding these matters, much like WADA does on the worldwide stage.

Marijuana likely won't be removed from the restricted drug lists, but a higher limit for testing could be accepted very soon.

Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.