The controversy over cannabis in sports may be winding to a close, as the world’s top anti-doping body delists the drug in light of research suggesting its benefits for protecting athletes’ health.
Nick Diaz speaks softly with a gentle demeanor, almost as if he’s afraid of hurting someone. “I never was a violent kid,” he tells Cannabis Now. “For me, fighting was always just a job to do, a way out of poverty.”
But over Diaz’s 12-year career in mixed martial arts (MMA), his unorthodox fighting style has brought him much more than that, garnering him fame and spectacular success in the Strikeforce, World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) and International Fighting Championships (IFC) leagues. Now a top-ranked fighter in the popular Ultimate Fighting Championship league (UFC), Diaz has wowed observers for his ability to stay competitive in a sport famous for taking a hard physical toll. Asked about his extraordinary longevity in a grueling sport, Diaz credits cannabis.
His manager and trainer, Cesar Gracie, agrees.
“Nick never would have made it this long without marijuana,” Gracie told CNM.
The veteran trainer credits the drug’s ability to dull pain, soothe inflammation and manage the fighter’s ADHD; but cutting-edge neuroscience research suggests that the benefits of Diaz’s pot habit could go far, far deeper.
In the late 90s, when the majority of the U.S. was still being told that excessive pot smoking caused brain damage, the first evidence of the ability of cannabinoids to do exactly the opposite began to appear. In 1996, an article published in the Journal of Neuroscience reported that cannabinoids could limit the damage to brain cells exposed to glutamate excitotoxicity – a condition which can cause the neurons to literally excite themselves to death. Other scientists built on this insight, eventually discovering the ability of cannabinoids to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and prevent permanent damage which might otherwise be caused by a concussion. Clint Werner, author of “Marijuana: Gateway to Health” uses such findings to advocate for policies to make marijuana use mandatory for every athlete in a dangerous sport like football, boxing, or MMA.
But while such a move may prevent considerable suffering, the issue may not be as clear-cut as Werner suggests. One MMA athlete, who preferred to remain anonymous, told CNM that a mandatory marijuana policy would effectively force him out of the league because of his prior history of drug abuse; having relapsed on weed before, he fears that any feeling of artificial intoxication, no matter how benign in its original intent, could send him spiraling back to abuse of alcohol and other dangerous drugs. His case is not unique; although the classical “gateway theory” has been discredited, many former addicts have anecdotally reported that indulgence in cannabis can reduce their resolve to abstain from other drugs (see, e.g., “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know”).
Banned for Efficacy?
Complicating matters still further is the continuing debate over whether cannabis can enhance athletic performance. While the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) made headlines by de-listing cannabis from its list of banned performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in May, the issue is far from settled in the case of MMA athletes, who arguably attain a decided competitive edge from marijuana’s well-documented analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. Getting high before going into the ring could conceivably help athletes to stay more limber and to feel less pain when getting struck; and in a league like the UFC, such properties equal a decided competitive advantage. At least the UFC seems to think so, because its board fined fighter Pat Healy $130,000 and changed his win over Jim Miller to a no contest decision after Healy tested positive for cannabis metabolites.
Currently, other sports leagues like the PGA and MLB maintain cannabis on their list of banned substances for essentially moral reasons, such as “conduct unbecoming a professional” or setting a bad example for young sports fans. But as laws continue the inexorable transformation of compassionate reform, watch for the debate of pot in sports to take a very different shape. The fight is far from over.