Theodorou among UFC fighters hoping to use marijuana medicinally

Elias Theodorou from Mississauga, Ont., seen here celebrating his unanimous decision over Cezar Ferreira from Brazil in a middleweight bout at UFC Fight Night in Halifax in 2017. (Andrew Vaughan/AP)

TORONTO — UFC middleweight Elias (The Spartan) Theodorou returns to action in December in his home town of Toronto. But first he hopes to win his fight for the right to use medical marijuana.

With the help of doctors and a cannabis healthcare provider, the 30-year-old Theodorou has quietly been campaigning 17 months to get a therapeutic use exemption for the marijuana he has been prescribed.

"It’s been an exhausting process, for sure," Theodorou said. "But it’s a fight that I’m definitely willing to make."

He sees it as a fight not against an opponent "but rather the stigma against medical cannabis."

Theodorou, who says he is fighting not just for himself but for other athletes, suffers from bilateral neuropathic pain.

"It’s in both my hands, my wrists, my elbows," he explained.

"There’s sharp pain, sporadic cramping. There’s burning sensation," he added. "In many ways I’m in a deficit compared to my opponents. And medical cannabis allows me to even the playing field and fight at a baseline level."

It also helps him recover from the duress of cage-fighting.

Asked if such pain is due to punching people for a living, Theodorou replies: "Yes and no."

"It’s not just because I’m a mixed martial artist. But because I already have neuropathic pain and because of what I do, it definitely aggravates it. Everything I do in some capacity is an aggravation to my condition."

UFC fighters are not tested for cannabis out of competition, as per the World Anti-Doping Agency code. But THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, is prohibited above a certain level immediately around the fight — out of concerns a fighter may not be able to defend himself or might absorb more damage as a result of taking it.

Cannabidiol or CBD — which unlike the THC component of marijuana does not have any psychoactive effects — is no longer prohibited.

CBD can be used for pain management. But Theodorou says his ailment also requires the THC component.

"My body tells me what actually works," he said.

He wants to be able to medicate all the way to the weigh-in, whereas fighters who use marijuana have to scale back ahead of the fight to get it out of their system.

The UFC’s anti-doping partner is the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which relies on independent experts to assess cases like Theodorou’s.

The fighter says those looking into his case have recognized his condition.

"But now they have forced me to go the route of exhausting all first-line medicine — so that’s painkillers, opioids etc."

The irony for Theodorou is that he already has something that works — medical marijuana.

"My family doctor, someone who’s known me for my whole life, knows that cannabis is right for me and that’s why he prescribed it for me."

Theodorou has some more tests scheduled for next week and hopes that his therapeutic use exemption will be approved after that.

Given this week’s legalization, he says he is proud of Canada "having an adult conversation" about cannabis.

But even if he gets the exemption, some athletic commissions may not recognize it because of their zero-tolerance rules towards cannabis.

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