All UFC events in the United States are overseen by a state athletic commission to ensure fighter safety and to uphold standards of fair competition in sports. In some instances—and when operating outside of North America in places that don’t have athletic commissions—the UFC regulates itself with its own policies in the same regard. And in fairness, the promotion does a good job at regulating itself when need be.

Yet, that doesn’t stop fighters from continually failing drug tests when the rules are clearly defined for them. Such was the case for former UFC welterweight Matt Riddle, who failed his second drug test for marijuana metabolites while competing for the UFC, which was self-regulating itself at the UFC on Fuel TV 7 event in London.

Riddle was fired by the UFC for his failure to adhere to the defined limits of its drug-testing policy. It seems like an open-and-shut case. These are the rules; if you break them or don’t have the good sense to be in the appropriate range for drug testing, then your punishment is a direct result of that. For Riddle, a card-carrying medical marijuana patient in the state of Nevada, do such strict policies that might not have patients like him in mind leave him in an unfavorable positional gray area? Or again, is it simply a case of a fighter not living up to their responsibility?

This is the second victory that was overturned to a no-contest due to Riddle testing positive for marijuana metabolites. The first instance was an UFC 149 submission victory over Chris Clements that was overturned by the Calgary Combative Sports Commission in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. After that first failure, Riddle remained in the UFC and served a 90-day suspension without fines.

Following the suspension, Riddle went onto the MMA Hour and claimed that he stopped his use 12 days before the fight to ensure that he would be clean. He admitted that he had done so successfully before. He stated that his marijuana use is self-medicated treatment for ADHD and pain as opposed to using prescription drugs. And hey, there is nothing wrong with a person making that choice, especially if they are medically cleared. But the problem is that the ingredients in a drug like marijuana: Tetrahydrocannabinol aka delta-9-THC, or just THC, can remain in a user’s system after the effects have worn off. That is where the marijuana metabolite issue becomes tricky.

For most people, giving themselves a 12-day time frame, like Riddle is said to have done, would normally be enough time to let the drug clear out of their system in order to give a clean urine sample. The body metabolizes the drug into molecules known as metabolites, and depending on body fat and frequency of use, the metabolites can be detected long after 12 days if the body hasn’t flushed them out. The user could have stopped weeks prior, but can still be busted for a dirty test, due to those pesky molecules still lingering around in the body, even when the drug is not active in their system.

This begs the question for the overseeing commissions’ decisions regarding medical marijuana users—that perhaps their stances should be changed towards the detection of metabolites in regards to specific cases of fighters like Riddle. However, this argument has already been made by the Nick Diaz camp regarding his recent year-long suspension after failing a drug test for marijuana metabolites after losing a decision to Carlos Condit at UFC 143.

Diaz’s attorney, Ross Goodman, argued in a case against the Nevada State Athletic Commission that marijuana metabolites are an inactive byproduct, not a performance enhancer or banned substance, and that the commission’s questionnaire towards fighters cleared to use a drug like marijuana are vague. Yet, the NSAC held that its standard of a fighter having anything above 15 nanograms of marijuana metabolites is a positive test (Diaz’s test resulted in 25 nanograms). Certainly there are valid arguments to be made for either side, but what cannot be argued is that a limit was clearly set by the commission and Diaz exceeded it in his test result.

For now, medical marijuana users won’t be receiving any special treatment in regards to cases like Diaz or Riddle. And it will be up to them to limit their use, likely for longer than they would like, in order to ensure the same problem is not continually occurring.

But what about medically cleared drug use such as testosterone replacement therapy, which has been accounted for by commissions? Why allow exemptions for one and not the other?

TRT users are given an elevated range to stay within in regards to their testosterone-epitestosterone ratio and are cleared by commissions such as the NSAC through therapeutic use exemptions. It is basically a free license to compete while using a steroid, as long as the fighter has a doctor’s note.

It is an issue that UFC President Dana White spoke on last February, saying TRT users need stringent testing to ensure the exemption for use isn’t being abused. Older fighters can use it to compete as they did when they were in their early 20s. Or a fighter can pump themselves up with testosterone during a training camp to receive its elevated benefits, and then taper themselves down to fall into the specified range come testing time.

Why not abuse it? Especially when testing and widespread knowledge of its use is still something that many in the MMA community are trying to wrap their heads around.

The use and abuse of TRT is a stark contrast to drugs like marijuana, which seems harmless in comparison.

Still, rules are set in place for the use of drugs by commissions and the UFC, and it is up to the fighter to work their way around those guidelines. Get caught once, shame on you. Get caught again, and don’t cry when the next paper you’re rolling up is a pink slip.

It’s simply not enough for a fighter to say “gee whiz, that really shouldn’t have happened” or “commissions should better understand my circumstances” when they continually make the same mistake as Riddle and Diaz have done.

The cases with marijuana and TRT use have shown that changes to policy towards testing would go a long way towards fairness of their use in competition. But change is more likely to come with successful lobbying and education. And the fighters competing under the current norm are going to have to hold themselves to just as strict standards to ensure that they aren’t wasting their time and potentially their money by having their next trip to the Octagon erased from the record books due to a failed drug test.

Photo: Nick Diaz (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.