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Why Major League Baseball’s rule changes on marijuana matter

There is something to be said for a predominantly white sport to take this step

SAN DIEGO — If you walked outside of MLB’s winter meetings last week, took a 15-minute drive down Pacific Highway, past the big warehouse supply store with a huge whale painted in street art style and beyond the Brickyard batting cages toward Old San Diego, you’d come up on a place called Urban Leaf. There, after a quick wand over and ID check, you’d walk into a single room and find a fancy holiday gift guide and racks of products that feature ingestion methods for THC and CBD or cannabinoids available for sale, all completely legal in California. Such has been the case for a couple of years, and now, if you’re a professional baseball player, you can take that same route to satisfaction without any fear of repercussion, just like any other citizen in America.

At baseball’s annual national conference, commissioner Robert Manfred announced that besides testing for opioids and cocaine, the league will move marijuana off the “drugs of abuse” list, a move that raised a couple of eyebrows around the proceedings. Not because people had a problem with the decision professionally, but because the announcement was more progressive than many thought the bigs were capable of. Not only were they decriminalizing weed, effectively, they would also be switching from a punishment to a treatment model for the previously stated narcotics. It’s been a more popular stance recently in sports, but baseball does not typically stay at the forefront of those kinds of adjudications.

Baseball had to do something with its drug policy, however, because a player died. The details surrounding the Los Angeles Angels’ Tyler Skaggs addictions were brutal. A team employee was supplying him the drugs. Skaggs reportedly began using them due to injury and it led to his death in July. Not completely unheard of, but 100% shocking.

Skaggs was found with a mix of fentanyl, oxycodone and alcohol. The former is what killed Prince. And many people have at least heard of oxycodone and likely know someone whose life has been affected negatively by some form of addiction. A guy I knew in college basically lost his dad to prison after he robbed a pharmacy at gunpoint. Point being, we all know it’s a problem. But it brought death to baseball’s door, so something had to change.

“The death of a Major League player is a devastating event for all of Major League Baseball,” Manfred said Dec. 12. “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.”

Major League Baseball is finally stepping into the modern world by updating the drug policies to be more sensible regarding the rest of America. We’re well beyond the caveman controversy of steroids — we’re talking about things that are not designed to necessarily enhance performance in the same way and are definitely extremely dangerous.

In regards to natural cannabinoids, which we’ll just refer to as “weed,” the most critical part of the rule change doesn’t even affect the bigs. Now, minor leaguers will no longer be subjected to weed tests and are thus cleared to use it for pain relief. In the majors, they didn’t test for weed before. Meaning, if you’re toiling through the bus leagues just trying to keep your body together, you don’t have to worry about getting popped in a random urine test and potentially losing a big chunk of your already meager salary. The relationship between the majors and the minors is frosty at best these days, so by evening out the drug policy, everything feels a tad more fair. But there is something to be said for baseball, of all sports, to take this step.

For reasons that basically all have to do with racism, people believe black people smoke more weed than white people. So, as the jokes used to go, if the NBA tested for weed, they wouldn’t have a league. But in the far more staunch and white world of Major League Baseball, the basic stereotype just isn’t there. The argument being the other side of the joke, that MLB would never need to do this anyways. But it did. And because the league is still well, big, there’s a statement made to a large part of the sports world about what it’s willing to accept as sensible. Which in turn will affect the game down the line to the youth game, and, in short, somewhat finally legitimizes weed across sports as, well, harmless. Short version: White people say it’s OK now.

Meanwhile, quite a few athletes have been championing the cause for a while, and many of them do so under similar flags. Perhaps the most famous advocate is former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who’s out here selling medical marijuana and we all know former NFL running back Ricky Williams has been about his business on that front. But there are plenty of lesser known players and people who just want folks to know that it is genuinely a thing to be taken seriously.

“It is a medicinal herb and it has a lot of different therapeutic applications,” Anna Symonds, a USA Rugby player, said on the phone Friday. She is part of the group Athletes for Care, a nonprofit organization composed of athletes and others who, according to their mission, advocate for smarter environments around the concept of drugs and addiction. “And this is specifically pertinent to athletes who, you know, we put tremendous wear and tear on our bodies, and you know, we’re kind of in some ways almost like the vanguard for medical issues in the general population, when you look at things like pain management and joint degeneration and all the things we go through.”

Basically, if it’s good enough for athletes, it’s good enough for the rest of us. We’re not talking about Joe Blow from Kokomo who just wants to relax after work. Or even medical patients who are prescribed it by a doctor. We’re talking about finely tuned humans who pay way more attention to what goes into their bodies than the average person walking the earth. What it says to the world when a pro sports player backs something means a lot. It’s why we’ll have old guys trying to sell various forms of vitality potions until the end of time. And those specific personalities make a difference, too.

“So, you know, athletes get a platform that the average person doesn’t and for some reason, oftentimes audiences want to listen to us about things more than they would listen to another average person,” Symonds, a white woman, said. “And you know, I think it’s really important you point out perceptions matter in society and having white privilege is something to be aware of and something to use. It’s another platform that you can use for telling the truth and helping to spread real information on behalf of everyone.”

There’s a reason that the slick Instagram account of a place like Urban Leaf is dotted with “everyday people” just smoking weed. By aligning itself with the wellness industry, we’ve made something more palatable by miles than it ever was from a stigma standpoint when they were locking black and brown people up and throwing away the key just for smoking blunts. That’s a whole other discussion, but the point is that the legal weed world is very much here and has been and with the stamp of approval from the most conservative sports league in America, you’ve 100% arrived.

One recently retired NBA player was shocked by baseball’s change. “Wow,” he texted. “I think it’s the natural progression that’s gonna sweep all sports eventually. Now that there is the science behind it that shows it’s more useful/helpful than, say, alcohol, which is permitted across all sports. I think they should and will regulate it to be sure guys aren’t showing up to events and/or games high.”

Which is of course, the ultimate fear, but in the climate of one of the game’s budding stars losing his life in a hotel room on a road trip to a vicious disease, it’s hard to really get mad at the concept of a dude vaping in the clubhouse after a game. There are more important things, more immediate problems, and on its drug policy MLB proved it’s at least giving an honest effort to not be a part of the bigger problem: drug abuse in America that is criminalized instead of treated.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at The Undefeated. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B, and remixes — in that order.