MMA Fighter Becomes First Medical Cannabis Patient Approved for U.S. Sports
Former UFC pro Elias Theodorou fought for years to receive his sport's official sanction for medical cannabis due to painful nerve damage in his hand.
Published on December 25, 2021

In an earth-shattering move for pro athletes, MMA fighter Elias “The Spartan” Theodorou is now the first contender in any US sport to compete — and win — with an official medical cannabis exemption. 

On December 18, Theodorou made history after defeating Bryan Baker by judge's decision in a headlining match that took place in Greeley, Colorado. The state of Colorado granted Theodorou, who is Canadian, the medical excemption back in May. And, true to form, Theodorou refrained from consuming THC for 48 hours before the landmark fight. 

The bout capped the former UFC fighter’s multi-year crusade to compete while using medical cannabis. Cannabis, he said, effectively treats the nerve-damage pain caused by a skateboarding accident that fractured his hand in multiple places, causing bilateral neuropathy. The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) told him that before he could fight with even just trace amounts of weed in his system, he first had to exhaust all other medical options. So, Theodorou duly took opioid painkillers with "debilitating side effects."

But USADA officials were unmoved, and initially refused to grant him permission to use cannabis while competing. Theodorou continued to advocate for medicinal marijuana regardless — and was released from his UFC contract in 2019, despite being ranked in the sport’s top 15 fighters.

“Sports officials try to raise awareness about the use of narcotics,” Theodorou told Leafly in a recent interview. “If it weren’t sad, it would be funny that they encouraged me to take opioids.”

Shortly thereafter, the British Columbia Athletic Commission gave him an exemption to compete while taking medicinal marijuana — the first such exemption in North America. This year, Colorado officials followed suit. 

“Validating my US Colorado TUE for cannabis with a fight and finish will officially stamp my place in American sporting history as the first sanctioned cannabis athlete,” said Theodorou in a press statement. “This is a precedent not only for myself but for other athletes in Colorado and other states, which in turn can create a wave of opportunities for other athletes to apply for the same right to medicate with cannabis in competition.”

Hopefully, Theodorou’s exemption will be the first of many for professional athletes in North America. Many former pros have come out of the closet in terms of their cannabis use to mitigate the oftentimes brutal physical and mental consequences of a career in high-intensity contact sports. Former players have even launched their own cannabis brands — a recent example being ex-NFL running back Ricky Williams, whose “Highsman” line serves as poetic justice after the many setbacks Williams’ career suffered due to penalties for positive cannabis tests.

In March, Theodorou completed his first fight as a publicly-acknowledged cannabis patient in Victoria, British Columbia, against Matt Dwyer. Theodorou said he only used CBD then — not THC, which he had won permission to use, as well — in the days running up to the bout. That March fight ended with Theodorou delivering a third-round TKO to Dwyer. 

To understand his struggle, he asked the public to consider the chronic, neuropathic pain in his hand. “Then, factor in what I do — a lot of punching and kicking,” he told Amanda Siebert at Forbes in March. “Wear-and-tear and damage both as patient and athlete compounds,” he said. “Cannabis works best as a form of pain management, especially compared to the first-line alternatives.”

So, not only did Theodorou prove that cannabis can be used responsibly in the sacrosanct realms of professional sports, but he also showed that cannabis could work longer and harder than opioids, too.

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Caitlin Donohue
Caitlin Donohue is a Bay Area-raised, Mexico City-based cannabis writer and author of She Represents: 44 Women Who Are Changing Politics and the World. Her weekly show Crónica on Radio Nopal explores Mexican marijuana culture and politics in the prohibition era. Follow Caitlin on IG @byrdwatch.
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