UFC welterweight Matt Riddle and the medical marijuana dilemma
The sport of mixed martial arts still isn't sure what to do about the pot smokers in its midst, which is bad news for them. It means they continue to get tested for a drug that remains in their systems far past the point of being active. If they get caught they're subject to punishments that don't fit the crime, all while the issue at the heart of the debate goes unexamined.
Just ask Matt Riddle if you don't believe me. He's a medical marijuana patient at home in Nevada, but when he got popped by a drug test in Calgary, where he beat Chris Clements with a finish that was dubbed "Submission of the Night" at UFC 149, he had the win erased from his record. He still considers himself 8-3 rather than 7-3 with one no contest, he told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
) after a decision victory over John Maguire at UFC 154, but his record will never reflect it.
"I dropped him with a liver kick, hit him with a standing arm triangle, and it was a very dominant performance," Riddle said. "The unfortunate part is that, in this world, people are OK if you take Xanax and testosterone and all these other drugs as long as a doctor prescribes them, but if you're prescribed medical marijuana because of your issues, it's not acceptable and they really frown upon it."
And herein lies an important distinction, especially if you're one of those people who hears the words "medical marijuana" and immediately thinks "loophole." According to Riddle, he's got real issues that are really solved (or at least greatly improved) by using marijuana. Issues like ADHD, which he was diagnosed with as a child, and which led to him being prescribed an assortment of drugs. First there was Adderall, which killed his appetite since "it's basically speed," Riddle said. Then there was Prevacid to deal with stomach issues, since he wasn't eating well and was reduced to "skin and bones."
As a teenager, he started smoking marijuana for non-medicinal reasons, as many teenagers do. But he eventually found that it allowed him to ditch the prescriptions, and now, according to Riddle, "I don't take anything else."
He doesn't need to. Marijuana helps transform him from a high-strung basket case to someone who other people actually like, he said.
"You can ask anybody who hangs out with me, when I'm not on my medicine, it's not that I'm hard to be around, but I'm very intense," Riddle said shortly after his win over Maguire. "... I like to slow it down. I like to be normal, like a normal person. Right now, I'm on edge. If I didn't just get out of the cage, I'd want to beat the s--- out of somebody, just for no reason. That's just how I'm wired, and I don't like it. I like being a nice guy. When I use, I'm a very nice guy and everybody around me loves me more. I'm a much more pleasant guy to be around."
The problem is, athletic commissions don't seem to care. To them, there might as well be no such thing as medical marijuana. Even though Riddle said he typically stops smoking it about two weeks before a bout, he still risks coming up positive on tests when he shows up to fight. Just to make sure he didn't have problems in Montreal, the UFC tested him twice on its own dime before this fight, he said. He hadn't smoked lately, "but I'm a heavy user, so it sticks in my system."
And that's the thing about marijuana that makes testing athletes for it so bizarre. Even those who argue that it's a performance-enhancer of some sort have to admit that the person who used it four weeks before a fight is as guilty as the one who used it two weeks out. It's just that one is way more likely to get caught and punished.
"I know all these guys are taking testosterone and they have medical releases, and I'm hoping maybe I can talk to a commission or talk to somebody and maybe get the rules changed," Riddle said. "I'm not asking to rip a tube right before I get in the Octagon. I quit pretty far out."
Here's where we get into the issue that makes marijuana a different brand of banned substance. I think most of us would acknowledge that any fighter who uses steroids, whether he uses them close enough to a fight to get caught or not, is cheating. He's knowingly giving himself an unfair advantage, and he's doing it specifically to give himself an advantage. But with marijuana, the difference between getting caught and getting away with it is so tied up with when and how much you use, regardless of whether it's actually helping you on fight night, long after it's no longer active.
As UFC VP of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner said when I asked him about Riddle and other medical marijuana patients on the roster, "Right now, I think in every state, it's illegal to fight with it in your system. ... If you did it three or four months ago, that's one thing. But if you're smoking the week of the fight, that's going to show. My feeling is, there could be a suspension, but also sort of a rehab to talk about it."
But then, rehab implies that you want to stop, and Riddle doesn't. He likes his life on marijuana, and feels it allows him to live a healthier, happier existence.
"It helps me play video games and eat food," Riddle said. "That's what it helps me do."
But because of commissions with a drug testing philosophy that somehow justifies testing for the presence of marijuana metabolites while not testing for the presence of synthetic testosterone, fighters like Riddle have to take steps to hide their usage. It's a system that makes cheaters out of honest, medicinal users, while also turning a blind eye to the very real dangers of other drugs.
That's a point that Riddle said he once tried to make to Ratner when he asked how it was possible for so many fighters to get therapeutic-use exemptions for testosterone while he risked losing a win and a few months of his career due to an herb that he is legally allowed to smoke. According to Riddle, that's when Ratner asked him, "Do you really want to have this conversation?"
Riddle said he did not, but I do. I think it's a conversation MMA has to have, if only because right now we're not getting good answers to some very good questions. As some states relax their laws about marijuana usage, Ratner acknowledged that it did seem to be gaining social acceptance, though the regulatory stance in our sport is still unchanged. The question is, why?
"I'm not going to get into the pluses or minuses and positives or negatives there," Ratner said when I asked him. "Right now it's illegal."
That's strange, because I would have thought that the "pluses or minuses" would be precisely what determines which substances are illegal and which aren't. As our society begins to change its mind on the issue, shouldn't our sports and regulatory bodies change too?