“Big” John McCarthy, MMA’s Ultimate Authority, Is Okay With Weed

While others cling to boneheaded myths, the OG of MMA refs is a voice of reason.
January 26, 2017, 5:32pm
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Next month marks a decade since the night in Las Vegas when Nick Diaz boxed up Takanori Gomi at his peak, called him a bitch when he came out for the second round, and submitted him with a gogoplata shortly thereafter. He had been an antihero on the fringes of the UFC, then suddenly he was better than Pride's lightweight champion. The aftermath was just as important for establishing the Nick Diaz it feels like we've always known: he failed a drug test, registering a marijuana metabolite level more than three times the commission's allowable threshold. Tony Alamo, then-chair of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, accused Diaz of being under the influence of marijuana during the fight itself and "that it made you numb to the pain. Did it help you win? I think it did."


Casting weed as a PCP-esque performance enhancer is an argument that only makes sense if you've never smoked pot. Still, Diaz was sidelined for six months and the commission overturned the fight result to a no contest. It was the first in a trilogy of episodes involving positive marijuana tests, the last of which—in 2015 after a bout against Anderson Silva, who pissed hot for actual steroids afterward—nearly provoked comment from a kinder and gentler White House and nearly earned him a five-year suspension from the same Nevada commission that screwed him before.

"Big" John McCarthy, the OG of MMA refs and former LAPD officer, was the third man in the cage for Diaz's fight against Silva. It's too bad he didn't also have a seat on the commission to set them straight.

Earlier this month, speaking with publisher Bill Shehan in the January 2017 issue of Vegas Cannabis, McCarthy defended marijuana and its medical efficacy. While McCarthy says that he's never puffed himself, his wife has been using medical marijuana since last year to treat symptoms associated with lupus, an autoimmune disease she was diagnosed with in 2014. "When you tell people that you use marijuana to treat your illness, right away they get this look like, 'Oh you just like to get high!' That is the last thing people like my wife are doing," McCarthy said. "All they are doing is trying to live a normal life and thank God there is something out there that actually helps them do that."


With regard to combat and mixed martial arts, McCarthy talked glowingly about a study linking cannabis use to preventing brain damage. And without naming Diaz or Alamo or anyone else, he said, "…my personal opinion on marijuana as a performance enhancing drug for fighting is absolutely not! I think the problem with marijuana when it comes to fighting is it can reduce your abilities, slow you down, diminish your reflexes, which in essence makes it more dangerous for the fighter ingesting marijuana."

Also: "I think it is silly to say that marijuana is a dangerous drug while opiates and opioids are being used all the time and under medical supervision are considered safe. Any medication can have side effects, but we should always be open to finding better ways to handle some of the aches, pains and problems that come with pushing your body to the point of it breaking down."

The whole thing is worth a read in its entirety because it's such a reasonable point of view in an age when authorities cling to ossified, outdated attitudes. Recreational marijuana is legal in eight states, while medical marijuana is legal in 28 states and the District of Columbia. And yet with a brand-new executive branch already flexing its fascistic muscles and with a noted weed-hater in new attorney general Jeff Sessions, whether marijuana is finally treated as the substance it actually is instead of what liquor-industry-backed old people imagine it to be remains an open question. Politicians lament an opioid epidemic that started because regulators thought heroin in a bottle would be safe. Meanwhile, in part because of the drug's Schedule 1 classification, doctors have to pay out of their own pockets to fund studies on whether marijuana can be used as a pain-management alternative to opioids.

Attitudes toward marijuana in the MMA sphere look progressive by comparison. Joe Rogan, the nexus of all things weed and martial arts, once claimed most UFC fighters smoke pot. It makes sense because marijuana is an MMA fighter's dream drug: a no-calorie relaxant after hours of training, a non-addictive painkiller, and maybe something that makes film study not so tedious. Today, the US Anti-Doping Agency—the UFC's third-party drug testing outfit—only applies the 50 ng/ml limit that got Diaz in trouble in 2007 during the 12 hours before and after a fight, with no prohibition on marijuana usage outside competition.

The gap between people who think that weed is mind-rotting devil flora and those who know that it isn't seems unbridgeable until you hear voices like McCarthy's. "Nobody should abuse anything, be it alcohol, cannabis, or even food," McCarthy said. "We all need to understand what our limits are, and know when we are ingesting more than our bodies need, but the craziness that has clouded the true medical benefits of cannabis needs to end."