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MLB to begin mandatory testing for opioids and cocaine, will ‘favor a treatment-based approach’

Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs was found dead in his hotel room July 1. An autopsy determined he had opioids and alcohol in his system at the time of his death. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

SAN DIEGO — Nearly six months after the overdose death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, Major League Baseball and its union on Thursday announced the sport will begin mandatory testing for opioids and cocaine in 2020, with treatment instead of immediate penalties for players who test positive.

In another significant change to the sport’s drug policy, marijuana will be removed from the list of drugs of abuse, meaning it would be treated essentially the same as alcohol; beginning next season, minor leaguers will no longer be suspended for marijuana use. Under the current policy, minor leaguers who tested positive for marijuana faced suspensions of 25, 50 and 100 for first, second and third positive tests.

Skaggs, 27, was found dead in his Texas hotel room July 1, and an autopsy discovered he had oxycodone, fentanyl and alcohol in his system. The shocking death thrust baseball into the center of the nation’s opioid epidemic and spurred major league and union officials to revise the sport’s drug policy. Until now, testing was only done for performance-enhancing drugs and banned stimulants.

“A death of a player is a devastating event for all of Major League Baseball,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said Wednesday at the sport’s annual winter meetings. “I think you saw that in terms of the reaction following that terrible event. I think it was a motivating factor in the [sides] getting together and addressing in the context of our industry what is really a societal problem in terms of opioids.”

The changes, which will begin in spring training, will “favor a treatment-based approach” to drugs of abuse, according to a joint MLB/MLB Players Association statement Thursday, with players who test positive for opioids, fentanyl, cocaine and synthetic THC referred to treatment. Discipline would be made only if players refuse treatment.

“Players for our side of the equation recognize there was an opportunity to take a leadership role here in this discussion,” union chief Tony Clark told the Associated Press. “Players aren’t immune to issues that affect all of us, and so the situation [with Skaggs] only heightened that, brought it closer to home.”

Clark told the AP the extent of player use of opioids is “difficult to gauge” and the union decided there “wasn’t necessarily a need to take a census of players as much as there was taking a leadership role in the conversation.”

In regards to marijuana’s new designation, Clark told the AP the moves by some states to legalize the drug factored into the changes. Marijuana is legal in 33 states for medicinal use.

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

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