MY NEXT FIGHT: THE STIGMA OF MEDICAL CANNABIS FOR ATHLETES.
As Canada goes through this historic moment of legalisation (October 17th, 2018), ending decades of prohibition, there is a common misconception that every Canadian has been given equal access to cannabis, enacted via the Canada Cannabis Act. Furthermore, medical cannabis has already been in use for a number of years, as prescribed by medical professionals, via the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR), and thus has become a part of our fundamental healthcare rights as Canadian citizen.
However, even with Canada’s legalisation of cannabis nationwide, and its previous medical exemptions, it remains illegal for medical use in-competition for all Canadian athletes, like myself, which is something I am determined to change. My next UFC fight is on December eighth, in Toronto, ON, against Eryk Anders, at UFC 231. He’s an incredibly tough opponent, no doubt; however, my biggest fight is not against one man, but instead transcends sports — it is against the stigma attached to medical cannabis.
USADA/WADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency/World Anti-Doping Agency) currently classifies cannabis as a PED (performance-enhancing drug), while studies have shown it to be anything but. It is, however, a much better alternative to treating chronic injuries, as well as pain management and recovery, especially for me, as diagnosed and prescribed by my doctor. More specifically, due to my bilateral neuropathic pain (in my wrists and elbows), I am currently at a competitive disadvantage, when compared to other professional athletes. Medical cannabis has proven an effective treatment, allowing me to perform at the same base level of others athletes in my sport, effectively evening the playing field.
Over the past 17 months, I’ve been working with USADA to become the first professional athlete ever to receive a TUE (therapeutic use exemption) for medical cannabis, in-competition. This has included multiple submissions over many months and having been forced to exhaust all first-line medications as options, such as Lyrica, Gabapentin and other pharmaceutical meds, like opioid-based painkillers. These did not work for me, as either a patient or athlete, failing to treat my condition and causing debilitating side-effects.
Lyrica, for example, caused constant constipation and an upset stomach, hindering my ability to train, due to the tremendous pain and discomfort. It also made me put on weight, which created enormous mental stress, as I have to cut weight to 185-lbs. to compete in the UFC’s middleweight division. When I went off Lyrica, my stomach issues cleared quickly and I lost the very uncomfortable 12 lbs. I had gained on the medication. For high-level athletes like myself, the need to be ready on game night begins months beforehand. Each and every physical and mental side-effect from any medication is a serious roadblock to my success.
While other athletes with similar conditions can simply opt for painkillers, I don’t have that luxury, as they either do not work for me or cause even worse side-effects. For instance, it would be perfectly legal for any of my future opponents to medicate with Vicodin while in-competition, while I would receive a substantial penalty for using medically prescribed cannabis.
Am I the only one that recognises this discrepancy? Clearly not, as the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), which conducts all anti-doping tests across Canada on behalf of USADA for the UFC, lobbied in 2017 for the removal of cannabis from WADA’s banned substance list. However, some countries strongly resisted. More specifically, the U.S. and Japan, to name two of the biggest detractors of the move, demanded that the CCES maintain their outdated status quo.
At this point in my TUE application, USADA has acknowledged the legitimacy of my medical ailments, have not been difficult to work with and have been certainly helpful throughout the process. However, it is still very much an on-going struggle, unfortunately. The goal of modern medicine is for a doctor or medical practitioner to prescribe the best treatment for a patient. In this case, my doctor has already diagnosed and prescribed the most effective medication for my condition. However, with USADA/WADA erroneously still classifying cannabis as a prohibited substance, they’ve required me to exhaust all other first-line medicines in pursuit of my TUE, which I have now done, even though we’ve already proven, medically, what is effective in my treatment, as diagnosed by my doctor, and medical cannabis healthcare provider, Solace Health Network.
If you are confused by the process so far or taken aback by the bureaucracy, don’t worry: I have been as well. It would be nearly impossible for any one person or athlete to tackle such uncharted territory on their own. Thankfully, I haven’t been fighting this historic battle alone. Over the past eight months, my cannabis healthcare provider, Solace Health Network, and the VP of Clinical Affairs, Sabrina Ramkellawan, have empowered me, both as a patient and athlete, assisting with the process, my submissions and subsequent resubmissions, including my next one. It has been reassuring to have a team behind me as I’ve been gearing up for this public announcement, especially with all the unknowns moving forward, for myself, Canada and Canadian athletes.
I recognize that being the first professional athlete to apply for a medical cannabis TUE would not be an easy, or quick, journey, and that changing USADA’s current classification would require a great deal of work on my, my doctor and the Solace Health Network’s behalf, which we have been more than willing to put in. Over the past 17 months of constant communication, I’ve quietly submitted and resubmitted my TUE a number of times. All the while, my condition has worsened and I have been unable to treat it effectively. Now, in conjunction with Canada’s historic legislation, I feel more comfortable, and even obligated, to no longer hide in the shadows of prohibition and an outdated approach to medicine.
Throughout my TUE application process, I have been concerned with what the professional organization I compete for — the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) — would think of, and how they would react to, my current medical condition, application and desire to go public in this pursuit. It was a great relief when I reached out months ago to the UFC, and VP of Athlete Development, Jeff Novitzky (the former top FDA agent, famous for investigating Lance Armstrong, among others). They not only “support my ongoing process,” but also are “committed to continue helping along the way, when needed.” Many other athletes in professional sports have not been so lucky and would fear suspension, or worse, if they went public in a similar fashion. It is an honour to compete for an organization open to allowing me to freely, and without repercussions, make my voice heard, as both a patient and athlete.
In coming forward, my hope is not only to gain a TUE for myself, but also to establish a roadmap for other Canadian athletes that may wish to exercise their now Canadian right to choose, following their doctor’s diagnosis, to use medical cannabis, as prescribed, in a much timelier manner.
I have always believed in, and remain 100-percent committed to, a clean sport. I have never failed any type of drug test that’s been administered to me, in-competition or out of, and have gladly followed all the rules, regulations and directives. However, I feel at this moment that the still on-going process of acquiring a medical cannabis TUE via USADA is not keeping pace with either my medical needs, the rights of Canadian athletes or our country’s current historical events.
I am writing this letter in hopes of bringing this subject out of the shadows, to shed light upon the current, unwarranted stigma surrounding medical cannabis, which must be challenged and changed as we move forward. Therefore, my biggest fight is not against the man standing across from me in the Octagon, on December eighth, but rather against the current stigma associated with medical cannabis, and my right as a Canadian to medically employ it.
As I once again get ready to resubmit my TUE application to USADA, on Wednesday, October 17th, from this day forward, this is a fight that transcends myself and sports, but one I am determined to win out in the open.