MMA fighter Elias Theodorou fights to reform policies on cannabis in sport

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When MMA fighter Elias Theodorou steps into the cage on Saturday, he’s not just looking to fight his opponent, Bryan Baker – he is also fighting for the rights of medical cannabis.

While this fight will mark Theodorou’s second professional fight with a medical cannabis therapeutic use exemption, it will be his first fight since being granted an exemption from a state athletic commission in the United States.

The fight, organized and promoted by the Colorado Combat Club, comes after Theodorou – whose professional record is 18 wins, 3 losses – received the exemption from the Colorado Combat Sports Commission in May.

Since cannabis rules vary from state to state and from sport organization to sport, such as state athletic commissions, the UFC, and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), athletes seeking medical exemption face many challenges.

Théodorou was diagnosed with bilateral neuropathy, resulting from damage to nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. He uses cannabis to alleviate the “pain and discomfort” he experiences on a regular basis. But he says the UFC denied him an exemption during his time fighting with them.

“They kept telling me to take more prescription drugs, when my doctor and I knew cannabis was good for me,” said Theodorou, a middleweight who has been undefeated in two fights since leaving of the UFC in 2019. “They were telling me to take antidepressants and opioids, while ironically or sadly doing a campaign on the opioid crisis. “

Elias Theodorou of Canada kicks Daniel Kelly of Australia in their middleweight fight during UFC Fight Night event on November 19, 2017 in Sydney, Australia.

Josh Hedges / Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

In January, the UFC announced that she was change your policy to allow marijuana for competitive athletes unless there is evidence that they have done so “for the purpose of improving performance.” USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart said in a report that it is UFC program “Is not bound by the World Anti-Doping Code”, which lists THC, a key component of cannabis, as a prohibited substance. But he added: “It’s also important to note that state athletic commissions have their own rules on marijuana that may prohibit use.”

Last year, Theodorou became the first publicly known professional athlete in North America to receive a therapeutic use exemption for medical cannabis, granted by the British Columbia Athletic Commission in Canada. But he is far from alone in calling for changes in policies on its use.

“There have been some athletes who have been persecuted for their medicine, but also penalized, taking away any type of victory, whether in mixed martial arts, or obviously the Olympics,” Theodorou said. “And that comes from an outdated mindset, regarding cannabis as a drug.”

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration lists cannabis as Schedule I drug, placing it in the same category as cocaine and heroin, and defining it as having no currently accepted medical use and having a high potential for abuse. This categorization has remained the same, although 36 states, Washington, DC and three US territories now authorize the medical use of cannabis products.

Although USADA operates as a private, not-for-profit corporation, most of its turnover in 2020 came from public funds through the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Theodorou says the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug has made it more difficult for athletes like him to seek medical exemptions.

“It was like a refusal to have cannabis recognized as a medicine. And, you know, this process has gone on for many years, ”he said.

“You can crush a handful of Percocet before a fight, and no one will ask you a question,” he added. “But if you happen to smoke a joint a week or two before, you may be penalized for it.”

The impact of these regulations was highlighted last summer when American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for cannabis resulted in her being disqualified from competition at the Tokyo Olympics. Richardson said she used cannabis to help him cope with the recent death of his birth mother, and noted that this was legal under state law.

Sha’Carri Richardson excluded from the Olympics

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The decision to suspend Richardson has sparked widespread public debate and questions about the management of cannabis use by professional athletes. With THC included on the list of prohibited substances from the World Anti-Doping Agency, there has been increased pressure on the organization to examine whether these regulations are outdated and need to be changed, as society’s views towards cannabis use have changed.

The agency later decided to review the status of cannabis as a prohibited substance, after receiving requests from “a number of stakeholders”. Other than the review conducted in 2022 by WADA’s expert advisory group on WADA’s ban list, not much is known about how the process will work. WADA didn’t offer to comment when CBS News asked about the exam.

Some experts say medical clearance for cannabis in professional sports is overdue.

Dr Craig Antell, a sports-related injury physician who practices medical cannabis, attributes the slow pace of changes in anti-doping policies in government and sports organizations to a lack of education on THC and CBD, and the cultural stigma of cannabis – rooted in historical discrimination.

“The NHL, the NFL, all of these organizations know there are alternatives, they’re just hesitant to take the plunge, and they have to do it,” said Antell, who has worked in physical medicine and rehabilitation for over 20 years. .

Antell believes healthcare professionals need to be “more receptive to alternatives” for pain management, such as medical cannabis, which are not yet common.

Although CBD, another component of cannabis, is not on WADA’s banned substances list – to which many national and international sports organizations subscribe – Antell says CBD must contain enough THC to activate its medicinal properties. the federal limit for THC in CBD products is 0.3%, which Antell says is not enough to provide the often-described medicinal benefits.

“One milligram of THC for 20 or 40 milligrams of CBD is enough to activate this endocannabinoid system to get rid of pain,” said Antell, explaining how her practice balances CBD and THC to meet each patient’s needs.

“You’re never going to get any cognitive effects from all of this, so you can work all day, you will be functional. “

As Theodorou continues to train for his next fight, he says he is already “very proud” of what he has achieved defending medical cannabis.

“I’m looking to make history again, not just for myself but for all the athletes, and I’m looking to raise my hand again, inside and outside the cage,” said Theodorou.

-Christopher Brito contributed reporting.


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