As 2019 neared its end, Major League Baseball changed its policy for testing its players for drugs. In December, it removed cannabis from its Banned Substances list, making quite a significant departure from its previous drug-testing policy. According to National Public Radio, the league will now treat marijuana as it does alcohol, offering its players treatment options.
This change is a complete about-turn in how most professional sports leagues consider cannabis, despite many of its athletes now relying heavily on it for both training and recovery from injuries and workouts. Additionally, the league is focusing harder and placing more emphasis on testing for the misuse of opioids and other pain prescription drugs.
These amendments to drug policy also offer treatment for players if they test positive for any substances on the League’s Drugs of Abuse list, which includes MDMA, LSD, cocaine, heroin, and now opioids, but not cannabis, among other drugs. According to the New York Times, drug czar to the White House, Jim Carroll, praised the change, noting that it would “prioritize treatment over punishment.”
“Millions of Americans struggle with substance misuse and need help.” – Jim Carroll
No Natural Cannabinoids on “Drugs of Abuse” List Anymore
As stated by Major League Baseball itself on Twitter, the new policy removes all “natural cannabinoids,” such as marijuana and its compounds, including tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, cannabidiol, or CBD, and others from its policy Drugs of Abuse list. It states that, “Going forward, marijuana-related conduct will be treated the same as alcohol-related conduct.”
If any players are found using cannabis, the League will refer them to a treatment board. However, this is optional. It will not punish athletes if they choose not to participate in treatment programs. Considering that many professional sportspeople around the world now use cannabinoids instead of opioids to treat pain from workouts and injuries, these programs are not enforceable.
As part of its new drug policy, which both the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, or MLPA, and the teams agreed upon, players will receive education in the coming 2020 and 2021 seasons about opioids and its dangers, in complete contrast to previous policy. Now, players will learn “practical approaches to marijuana” instead.
Change Sparked by Death of a Player
Following the death of Tyler Skaggs, pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, due to alcohol and opioid use, baseball acted fast to change its drug-testing policies. The 27-year old pitcher died in his Dallas hotel room back in July 2019, while on tour to play the Texas Rangers. Tests found oxycodone, fentanyl, and alcohol in his system, opioid-based drugs common for treating pain.
Ruled an accidental overdose, Skaggs joins a long list of celebrities and athletes to die after using prescription painkillers, much like the 2008 death of Heath Ledger in similar circumstances. The death of Skaggs sparked a debate within the League about how to prevent similar tragedies among its players from occurring in the future.
In speaking to National Public Radio, Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, said, “I think that it was a motivating factor in the commissioner’s office and the MLBPA getting together and addressing in the context of our industry what is really a societal problem in terms of opioids.” The change will set a new and positive precedent for sports leagues around the world to follow.
As the New York Times explained, players testing positive for marijuana use will receive optional referrals to medical professionals that specialize in treating substance abuse. The board will include representatives from both the MLB and the MLBPA too, and if needed, it will create a personalized treatment plan. Players will need to cooperate with initial evaluation, however.