Like most athletes, Elias Theodorou likes being first.
In 2014, the mixed martial artist known as ‘The Spartan’ became the first Canadian to win The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s reality TV competition. Last year, his list of feats grew again when he became the first professional athlete and mixed martial artist in the world to be granted a medical cannabis use exemption by a governing body.
In January 2020, Theodorou was granted a therapeutic use exemption for medical cannabis in competition by the British Columbia Athletic Commission. The exemption allows him to use cannabis as medicine while training and in preparation for competition without the risk of being penalized or barred from competition.
A Case For Cannabis
So what does it take to become a cannabis-sanctioned athlete? Theodorou has spent the last four years dedicated to seeking an exemption, a journey that he says only really began after he left the UFC.
“It wasn’t until I was a free agent that I could continue being an agent of change for cannabis in athletics,” he says. “That’s when I applied for the therapeutic use exemption.”
Armed with a stack of documentation built with help from his counsel and doctors, Theodorou submitted his case and was approved to use cannabis to treat pain associated with bilateral neuropathy. Following an accident that left his hand broken in two places and fractured in four, he suffers from nerve damage in his upper extremities.
“Then factor in what I do—a lot of punching and kicking. Wear-and-tear and damage both as patient and athlete compounds,” he says. “Cannabis works best as a form of pain management, especially compared to the first-line alternatives.”
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As part of the case he built to apply for the exemption, Theodorou took those first-line alternatives—powerful opioids—first exhausting all existing recommended options to show the commission that the side effects he was experiencing from painkillers were detrimental to his training.
“What I’m trying to strive for is an even playing field. Anyone with the same kind of injury would be able to take a handful of Vicodin to go and fight and it wouldn’t be an issue,” he says, “but a joint or a vape session a week or two earlier could get someone suspended for months.”
The current classification of cannabis as a prohibited substance is “nothing more than an outdated mindset” that Theodorou says he is committed to fighting, both for himself and other athletes that reap the benefits of medical cannabis.
This Saturday, Theodorou will finally get to validate his therapeutic use exemption in his first fight since before the coronavirus shut down the vast majority of professional sports. (Initially, his first fight as a sanctioned athlete was appropriately scheduled for April 20, 2020.) He’ll face fellow UFC veteran Matt Dwyer in a middleweight bout in Victoria, BC.
Although Theodorou fought for and won the right to use THC, a banned substance, all the way through from training to competition, he’s spending the last 48 hours before the fight using only CBD products to medicate.
“I believe in clean sport and in transparency, so I’ll be switching to CBD, essentially moving away from the psychoactive component into more anti-inflammatory components during the latter part of my training,” he says.
Theodorou notes that even though the process of seeking an exemption took time, he’s grateful to have a freedom that other athletes do not. Professional athletes in other jurisdictions have already reached out to him with questions, with many expressing that they continue to face hurdles when it comes to using medical cannabis—particularly in the United States.
“Unfortunately U.S. athletes don’t have the same ability to argue medical rights, and definitely not medical cannabis rights,” he says. “I’m looking forward to showing them the blueprint I’ve used both in BC and Canada-wide, but also opening those doors and that conversation beyond Canada.”
For now, the fighter, actor and stuntman says he’s most focused on his impending fight.
“I couldn’t be more excited that this is actually coming to fruition. I can’t wait to knock cannabis off the prohibited list, but also to knock out my opponent.”