Last night, it was reported that minor league pitcher Alex Reyes of the St. Louis Cardinals organization was suspended 50 games without pay for a failing a drug test. No, Reyes wasn't trying to gain a competitive edge by using performance enhancers or human growth hormone. He was suspended for more than one third of the minor league baseball season due to his usage of marijuana.
In a statement regarding the suspension, Reyes "acknowledged" his inappropriate behavior and stated he would accept whatever consequences result from his actions. Unfortunately for Reyes and the Cardinals, the true travesty is the hypocrisy of the MLB's Joint Drug Agreement (JDA) and the treatment of minor league players.
Under to the current JDA, major league players are not subjected to random tests for recreational drugs. A player is only subject to drug treatment if he is referred to an MLB treatment board. A player could be suspended for failing to abide by the terms of his treatment as laid out by the board, but only if they test positive a so-called "hard drug." In a case of marijuana as the "drug of abuse," a player will only face an escalation of fines unless the commissioner were to step in and determine further punishment was necessary.
Furthermore, while there is a provision in the current JDA to allow for suspensions in a case of a player being arrested for possession, this provision hasn't been enacted as written. For example, former Brewer farmhand Chris Perez was arrested in 2013 for having marijuana mailed to his house in a package addressed to his dog. Perez was not suspended for 50 games, as the policy suggests, but was instead placed in a treatment program. Tim Lincecum has also been cited for marijuana possession during his big league career and wasn't suspended. Older versions of the JDA expressly stated that players couldn't be suspended for marijuana possession; the way discipline has been handled under the new JDA could makes it seem like it was simply a mistake not to include this provision in the current version.
The only sure-fire to suspended for marijuana as a major league player is by getting caught selling or distributing the drug, which results in a minimum 80 game suspension.
These rules only apply to players protected on 40 man rosters, however. The JDA isn't applied at the minor league levels, as those players are not protected by the MLB Player's Association. Instead, minor league players are subject to random, year-round testing and suspensions if they are caught, despite the MiLB regular season running from only April through early September. Players that fail a test for a "drug of abuse" (including marijuana) are placed in a treatment program after their first positive test. Subsequent positive tests result in escalating suspensions of 50 and 100 games. If a minor leaguer fails four drug tests, that player is permanently banned from baseball.
So, whereas major league players are not even tested for marijuana, the substance could end up costing a minor league player their career. In addition to Alex Reyes (who will now lose more than 1/3 of his ~$10,000 salary next season), players like Jonathan Singleton, Alfredo Aceves, and the Brewers' own Jeremy Jeffress have faced significant suspensions simply for smoking a little reefer.
The saga of Jeremy Jeffress is a particular example of the tone-deafness of the MiLB drug testing policy. Many Brewers fans remember when Jeffress was selected in the first round of the 2006 draft. A top prospect capable of throwing more than 100 MPH with his fastball, Jeffress seemed destined to front the club's rotation in the near future. It was early in Jeffress' career, however, that he began battling a seizure disorder.
According to Jeffress' agent, Joshua Kusnick, doctors told Jeffress that there was a strong correlation between smoking marijuana and reducing his seizures. Unfortunately for Jeffress, the harsh enforcement of the MiLB drug testing policy led to three failed tests and separate suspensions of 50 and 100 games. Medical marijuana is not approved by the MiLB. The drug Marinol, an FDA approved alternative to medical marijuana, was also on baseball's list of banned substances. Kusnick contemplated legal action against the MLB and JDA in order to protect his client before Jeffress and his doctors were finally able to find an alternative that treated his seizures as effectively as smoking pot. Additionally, Jeff Passan reported that the Brewers placed Jeffress on the 40 man roster earlier than necessary in 2010 in order to protect him from receiving a lifetime ban from the game.
Public perception about the so-called "drug," which is a natural plant and comes from the Earth, has been changing in recent years. A Gallup poll recently found that 44% of Americans surveyed admitted to having used marijuana at least once in their life, up from 38% in 2013 and 4% in 1969. A survey done by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans surveyed are now in support of full legalization. Recreational sale and use of marijuana is currently legal in four states, including three where there are major or minor league affiliates of the MLB: Colorado, Washington, and Oregon (Alaska is the fourth state). Beyond that, 23 states and the District of Columbia have approved the use of medicinal marijuana. Both of these numbers figure to grow in the coming years.
In Alex Reyes' case, the Cardinals should probably be glad that he using marijuana versus another, more dangerous substance, like alcohol for example. While there has never been a documented case of someone dying from "marijuana overdose," consumption of too much alcohol can lead to death from alcohol poisoning. Additionally, former Cardinals' prospect Oscar Tavares killed himself and his girlfriend last year after he wrecked his car while drunk driving. There are some risks associated with using cannabis, of course, but those risks are not as concerning as those associated with alcohol or hard drugs.
Major League Baseball, as opposed to the NBA and NFL, seems to have the most reasonable policy about marijuana when it comes to their collectively bargained employees. In regards to the minor league players that aren't protected under the CBA and JDA, however, baseball's drug testing and suspension program is excessively punitive, unfair, and hypocritical. It's time for commissioner Rob Manfred to address this major league inconsistency.