Blog Post

Major League Baseball's Unsuccessful War on Drugs

Tommy McDonald

The sports world is all atwitter about Major League Baseball’s (latest) performance enhancing drug scandal. Amid all the sanctimony about the “integrity of the game” and self-righteous disdain for the so-called “cheater” players, two recent pieces cut to the heart of baseball’s drug problem. declares that baseball’s war on drugs is going about as well as the U.S. government’s failed war on drugs. Despite years of hollow rhetoric, draconian measures and a trillion dollars wasted, America’s war on drugs has left a trail of death, disease, destruction and disenfranchisement.

And America’s pastime isn’t faring much better.

In, “committed Yankee hater” (I like this guy already), Alex Pareene writes:

Basically, Major League Baseball is acting like the federal government. And like the federal government its War on Drugs is going quite poorly. Years after BALCO, it looks as if just as many players are using. The league’s stricter enforcement has simply led to players getting more creative, and apparently relying on even less reliable sources. (No doubt the Bay Area Lab Co-operative had better minds behind it than Biogenesis did.) Like the federal War on Drugs, enforcement is draconian and unequal (minor leaguers don’t get the protection and defense provided by the MLBPA). It is also occasionally incoherent: Marijuana use subjects players to suspensions and bans, though drunk driving doesn’t. There’s no concrete evidence that HGH does much for players beyond making them look really cut. At least Major League players have access, unlike your typical subject of the criminal justice system, to the best defense money can buy. (Unions! They are quite handy!)

Meanwhile, over at the Nation, Dave Zirin took it a step farther and offered a novel solution: decriminalize and regulate steroids and other PEDs.

Steroids and all PEDs need to be seen as an issue of public health not crime and punishment. If seen as an issue of public health, the scandal here would not be that a group of players may have used PEDs. The scandal would be that they had to visit a skuzzy, unregulated “clinic” not run by medical professionals to get their drugs. Instead of criminalization, educate all players about the harmful effects of long-term PED use when not under a doctor’s supervision. Have medical officials make the policy and determine what PEDs help a person heal faster – an admirable quality in a medicine, no? – and what shouldn't be a part of any training regimen. Centralize distribution under the umbrella of MLB so it doesn’t become an arms race of which teams get the best doctors and the best drugs. Then, players could take advantage of the most effective new medicines and MLB would be removing the process out of the shadows where the Tony Bosch-types of the world hold sway. They also then have an ethical basis for testing and rehabilitation when use crosses the line into abuse.

The use of performing enhancement drugs in sports is a tricky subject, for sure. But one is certain - America’s failed war on drugs model doesn’t offer any pearls of wisdom about how to tackle the issue.

Despite the trillion-dollar price tag, overcrowded prisons and millions of shattered lives, drugs are more prevalent than ever. And despite our best efforts, people will continue to use drugs. And in sports, a microcosm of society, athletes will continue to push the envelope to get a competitive edge.

It’s time to stop the witch hunts and public floggings and get to the root of the problem with reasonable approaches. Whether it’s Cooperstown or Fresno, the issue of drug use will not be solved with the same old forbid and punish model.


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