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MLB will provide treatment for opioids and other drugs instead of punishment

MLB: OCT 09 NLDS - Cardinals at Braves Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Major League Baseball and the players union announced a change to its drug testing and prevention program, aimed at dealing with a growing opioid crisis. In adopting a treatment-based solution rather than a punitive one, the hope is to prevent another tragedy like we saw last summer.

Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs was found dead in his hotel room in Texas on July 1, and the autopsy report showed fentanyl, oxycodone, and alcohol in his system at the time of his death. That spurred MLB and the players union to work over the last few months to amend the current joint drug agreement, which runs through 2021.

The changes, announced Wednesday at baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego, will begin in spring training, and include widespread testing for opioids, fentanyl, cocaine, and synthetic THC. Under the previous terms, opioids were only tested with reasonable cause.

Rather than getting suspended initially, players who test positive for these drugs of abuse will be evaluated by a joint treatment board, which could then potentially outline a treatment plan. The key phrase in here from the amended agreement is that “only players who fail to cooperate with their initial evaluation or prescribed treatment plan may be subject to discipline.”

“The death of a major league player is a devastating event for all of Major League Baseball,” commissioner Rob Manfred said at the dais in San Diego. “I think you saw it in terms of the reaction following that terrible event. 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.”

“Players are overwhelmingly in favor of expanding our drug-testing regimen to include opioids, and want to take a leadership role in helping to resolve this national epidemic,” union executive director Tony Clark said in a statement.

We’ll never know if Skaggs’ death could have been prevented had this program been in place sooner, but it could help players in a similar situation in the future avoid such a fate.

Speaking of joint agreement

The other big change to the drug plan is that marijuana is no longer listed among “drugs of abuse.” Marijuana wasn’t tested among players on 40-man rosters, but it was in the minors, with a warning for the first positive test.

Under the new agreement, marijuana is handled like any alcohol-related conduct, which means evaluation and treatment are the initial remedies rather than suspension. In addition all players must undergo mandatory educational programs in both 2020 and 2021 on “the dangers of opioid pain medications and practical approaches to marijuana.”

Perhaps the most famous case of a player suspended for marijuana in the minors was all-star reliever Jeremy Jeffress, who was suspended 50 games in 2007 and 100 games in 2009. Later it was revealed that Jeffress used marijuana to help deal with headaches, anxiety, and seizures, the cause of which wasn’t known until he was diagnosed with juvenile epilepsy in 2013.

“If we never figured out what was wrong, I think he could have fallen into a very dark place,” his then-agent Joshua Kusnick told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2018.

In 2019, there were 13 suspensions for a drug of abuse among minor leaguers. That included Reds outfielder Nate Scantlin twice, a 50-game suspension in January for his second positive test, and 100 games in August for his third positive test. Mariners Triple-A outfielder and first baseman Eric Filia was also suspended 100 games in March for his third positive test. The rest of the minor league suspensions for drugs of abuse this year were for 50 games.

Those suspensions are no more. Eleven states plus Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and several more states have decriminalized it.

“It was a part of a larger conversation that was reflective of the attitudes changing in many parts of the country,” Clark told the Associated Press Wednesday.