\A general view of the Octagon prior to the start...

\A general view of the Octagon prior to the start of UFC 250 event at UFC APEX on June 6, 2020 in Las Vegas. Credit: Zuffa LLC via Getty Images/Jeff Bottari

Fighters who test positive above the threshold for marijuana no longer will be in violation of the UFC’s anti-doping policy, the mixed martial arts promotion announced Thursday as part of several changes to its program.

The threshold for a positive test is 150 nanograms/milliliter. Fighters still will be subject to in-competition testing for marijuana and its psychoactive component carboxy-THC under the program, which is administered by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The UFC considers "in-competition" as the time from weigh-in day (the day prior to the fight) until they exit the medical tent after their fight. But there will be no violation for testing above the threshold "unless additional evidence exists that an athlete used it intentionally for performance-enhancing purposes."

"The only concern that we have here with marijuana, it's an in-competition prohibited drug only," said Jeff Novitzky, vice president of athlete health and performance for the UFC and a former FDA agent who investigated steroids and performance-enhancing drugs in sports. "So you want to make sure the fighters aren't impaired when they're fighting. And the reality and what the science shows with marijuana is strictly a level in urine or blood really has no scientific correlation with impairments."

THC is fat-soluble, which means it can remain in a person's system for weeks, far beyond the period of time of impairment. Novitzky stressed this difference between impairment and testing positive for marijuana.

"The purpose of this is making sure that you are sanctioning for fighters, making sure that they're really impaired. And not just that they have the high level in their urine, because this stuff's fat soluble, it stays in your system for a long time," Novitzky said. "And so our fighters lose a lot of weight close to the fight. So you're releasing things from your fat cells. And I just had no degree of confidence that these fighters that were exceeding the threshold of 150 nanograms per milliliter, I had very little to no degree of confidence that they were actually impaired when they were fighting."

As the UFC eases its restrictions, fighters still will need to adhere to athletic commissions’ rules. For example, last month, Niko Price was suspended six months by Nevada’s commission for a positive test, fined $8,500 and had his draw against Donald Cerrone overturned to a no contest. Nevada suspended four other fighters last September as well. Athletic commissions' rules can vary from state to state.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world last March, the UFC held three events in Florida last May, then hosted all their other events either in Nevada or the United Arab Emirates.

"This unfortunately doesn't mean free rein because most of our fighters when they fight, for instance in Nevada, they're subject to athletic commission rules, and most of the athletic commissions still have this rule of 150 nanograms per ml," Novitzky said.

The immediate impact will come with the events where the UFC self-regulates, which include most of the fight cards outside of the United States. The UFC's first three events of the year take place on "Fight Island" in Abu Dhabi, UAE, beginning on Saturday.

"So these rules will come into effect for these next three fights, it doesn't matter what a fighter's level of THC, it doesn't matter how high it is, unless there's visual evidence of impairment, there's no violation," Novitzky said. "But that's not the case with athletic commissions."

Novitzky said the "next step" in this process is talking with state athletic commissions and sharing their science with them. Novitzky said the UFC used as a guideline a 2017 report on marijuana-impaired driving from the U.S. Department of Transportation to Congress.

"What they determined from a law enforcement perspective, is in order to be convicted and driving under the influence of marijuana, it's a field sobriety test, not a blood or a urine test like alcohol would be," Novitzky said. "And so we thought, well, I mean, if it's good enough for the law enforcement world it should be good enough for the anti-doping world as it comes to impairment."

The UFC’s decision falls in line with other major sports leagues in the U.S. who eased their restrictions on marijuana use recently. Last March, the NFL agreed to no longer suspend players who test positive for marijuana. They also reduced their testing window and increased the threshold for what would constitute a positive test. The NBA didn’t test for marijuana in the Orlando bubble last summer and continued that policy this season. MLB removed marijuana from its banned substance list after the 2019 season.

It also moves in step with the country’s changing approach toward marijuana. New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota and Montana voted in favor of measures to legalize recreational marijuana in last November’s elections, bringing the total to 15 states. New York legalized marijuana for medical use in 2014, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday again called for legalizing it for recreational use. There are only six states left where marijuana use is fully illegal. The other 44 have either approved it in some form or at least decriminalized it.

Perhaps the highest-profile marijuana case for the UFC came in 2015 when Nick Diaz was suspended five years by the Nevada Athletic Commission after a third marijuana-related offense. It later was reduced to 18 months.

USADA’s website for UFC testing sanctions shows six fighters received either a suspension or a warning for positive tests for carboxy-THC or cannabinoids.

The UFC also removed cannabinoids from its prohibited substances list, and added Informed Choice as an approved dietary supplement certifier.

"I want to temper everybody's expectations, because this isn't the end-all, be-all because of the commissions," Novitzky said. "But it's certainly a positive step in the right direction."

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