Inside a minor league clubhouse this year, a player who had tested positive for marijuana a second time informed teammates of the 50-game suspension he would serve because of it. The player wasn't concerned, according to a witness. He didn't plan on curtailing his marijuana use, either.
"I'll just smoke my way onto the 40-man," he said.
In the annals of drug use, this might be a first: an employee trying to get a promotion by getting high.
The scenario suggested by the player, whose identity Yahoo Sports agreed to conceal to protect him from further potential discipline, shows the chasm between the reasonable drug policy for major league players on a team's 40-man roster and the harsh rules for minor leaguers that have yet to change with a culture becoming more and more accepting of marijuana. If a player shows major league potential and a team wants to shelter him from a 100-game suspension for a third offense or lifetime ban for a fourth, it simply needs to place him on the 40-man and subject him to a major league policy that cannot suspend players who test positive for weed.
This isn't some sort of high-in-the-sky strategy; it's an actual loophole in baseball's policy with real-life examples. Milwaukee placed pitcher Jeremy Jeffress on its 40-man roster five months earlier than necessary in 2010 after his 50- and 100-game suspensions. Houston moved first baseman Jonathan Singleton to its 40-man to protect him from the Rule 5 draft — and from himself, with his admission to the Associated Press that he's a "marijuana addict."
While the NBA and NFL are better known for marijuana use among players, it's far from a rarity in baseball. In addition to Singleton and Jeffress, first-round picks Tim Beckham and Billy Rowell, along with current major leaguer Tom Wilhelmsen, have been suspended for pot use in the minors. Since the beginning of 2014, Major League Baseball has levied 13 suspensions on minor leaguers for so-called "drugs of abuse," which include marijuana, cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy and others.
At least one of the 13 is trying to take advantage of the rules negotiated by the MLB Players Association. Despite stronger penalties for performance-enhancing drugs, the union hasn't budged on its policy for marijuana use. One positive test means an evaluation done by league medical personnel and, if deemed necessary, a treatment program. A second offense warrants a treatment program and significantly more testing, usually once a week for an entire year before paring back to about once a month. Further positive tests allow the league to fine a player up to $35,000, a penalty with which commissioner Bud Selig has threatened at least one habitual marijuana user, according to a letter Selig sent to the player that was obtained by Yahoo Sports.
Minor league rules are far stricter because MLB can impose them unilaterally since the union only negotiates on behalf of major league players. On the second positive test, a player is suspended for 50 games, more than one-third of the season and on par with the NFL, which usually banishes players four games for a first positive, eight for a second and a season for a third.
Of course, the NFL and NFL Players Association are on the verge of overhauling their drug program to significantly lessen penalties for marijuana in exchange for stricter HGH testing. Not only could it benefit an NFL culture in which some players instead use addictive painkillers to treat injuries and aches, it reflects modern America, where weed is already legal in one pro sports city (Denver), is soon to be in another (Seattle) and faces fewer roadblocks to legalization.
For now, MLB plans no immediate change to its policy, even if a player openly flouts his intentions.
"The penalties for marijuana use under the minor league drug program, which is not subject to bargaining with the players association, are more stringent than the Major League Joint Drug Program," MLB executive vice president of labor relations Dan Halem told Yahoo Sports. "However, major league players who are in a treatment program as a result of their marijuana use in the minor leagues may be subject to discipline, including fines and suspensions, if they do not comply with their treatment programs.
"We would be extremely surprised if a club made a promotion decision based on the differences in the programs."
It's not that big of a surprise. In Class A, players make about $1,000 a month. The number jumps to about $1,500 in Double-A and $2,150 in Triple-A. The starting salary for a minor leaguer on the 40-man is more than $8,000 a month, and the major league minimum is $500,000 for a full season. So, yes, smoking one's way onto the 40-man isn't just a good time. It's a potentially profitable one, too.
Staying on the 40-man while high, of course, is the issue. One longtime marijuana smoker who quit in recent months said he's playing better than ever, as though a permanent fog has lifted. To smoke or not to smoke isn't so much an existential question as an economic one. For the supposed potential benefits, losing 50 games can be extremely harmful – and carry the sort of stigma nonexistent in the NBA, which doesn't suspend players until after their third positive test, and just five games (6 percent of the season) at that.
For those on the 40-man, the fines are not fun, though one player had an antidote to that, according to one witness and another source who confirmed the story: When MLB issued him the letter informing him of the fines in person, the player whipped out his checkbook and wrote a check for twice the amount of the fine.
When asked why, the player said: "For the next one."