Does Major League Baseball Have A Cocaine Problem?

By Britni de la Cretaz 08/01/17

A new investigation examined the history of drug use and drug-related deaths throughout the prolific league.

baseball player swimming a bat into a ball

In a story for the Huffington Post, journalist Andy Martino posits a theory: that Major League Baseball has a cocaine and illicit drug use problem.

Martino cites anecdotal evidence and estimates from current and former players that as many as 25% of MLB players are cocaine users.

“I think baseball has had a [drug] problem for its entire life,” one active player told Martino. “Take into account our age and fame and money, and the number [of users] goes up fast.”

Martino also cites recent high-profile deaths of players Jose Fernandez—who had cocaine in his system when he crashed a boat last year, killing himself and two friends—and Tommy Hanson, who died from cocaine and alcohol toxicity in 2015. One player he interviewed said that over the course of the approximately 400 days he spent in the MLB, he used cocaine “a handful” of times and smoked marijuana about 150 of those days.

During the 1980s, there was much more talk about cocaine use in the league. In 1986, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended seven players after what became known as the Pittsburgh Drug Trials. Presently, we are more likely to hear about performance-enhancing drug (PED) use than we are about illicit substances—unless it’s a case like Josh Hamilton, whose struggles with alcohol and cocaine are well-documented. He was playing for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2015 when he suffered a highly publicized relapse, after which he was not punished by the league though the team pushed to have him traded.

As to whether or not MLB has a cocaine problem—that still isn't clear. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), in 2014, 1.4% of adults ages 18-25 reported using cocaine in the past month. It’s worth noting that the players’ estimates of anywhere between 5 and 25% is still higher than the general population.

According to MLB’s Joint Drug Agreement, illicit substances are banned. However, the league does not test for them without compelling reason. If a player is using cocaine on an occasional, recreational basis and it is not interfering with his performance or well-being, is it fair to call that use, in and of itself, “a problem?” What about players who use marijuana, which is legal in some states? They wouldn’t technically be breaking any laws, the substance is not a performance enhancer, and if their job is not affected by the use, is it really something to define as “problematic?”

Whether or not MLB has a widespread problem with illicit substances beyond PEDs is something that needs to be further investigated. But the answer may also depend on whether or not someone defines recreational, non-problematic use of a substance to be an issue in and of itself.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.