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Shifting the narrative on how we talk about Eric Filia and players who test positive for drugs of abuse

It’s not as simple as just stopping

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-Peoria Javelinas at Glendale Desert Dogs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last Friday, we learned that Mariners first baseman and outfielder Eric Filia tested positive for a drug of abuse for the third time in his career. As a result, he was suspended for 100 games, effective immediately. The suspension is a blow for a Mariners farm system that needs all the help it can get, but considering the team’s logjams in the outfield and at first base, it could have been worse. Regardless, it was sad news.

It’s sad news for the Mariners, because even if the team is relatively loaded with outfield prospects, it could always use a few more. Make no mistake, Filia is good. Baseball America recently rated him as having the “best strike zone discipline in the organization”. Sure, at 26 years old and not even having had a full season in Double-A, he’s a bit behind the curve. But taking his previous suspension into account, this was Filia’s year to prove that he was going to do something. Now, it’ll have to be at age 27. In Double-A. There’s a non-zero chance that the team cuts ties with him.

It’s sad news for fans, because players like Filia are fun to watch. To me, at least, there are few things less enjoyable than watching guys who strike out a lot and can’t walk. Filia doesn’t strike out much, and he walks a lot. There was a good chance that a 28-year-old Filia could have been real bench depth for the 2021 Mariners.

Most of all, it’s sad for Filia. It’s easy to sit back and say that Filia deserves this. The “drug of abuse” is, according to multiple sources, marijuana. He should, common logic holds, just lay off of it, cash his checks, focus on baseball, and smoke all the pot he wants when he’s on the 40-man, where players are exempt from recreational drug testing. The failure to do so is a failure of Filia’s. A failure of his willpower, or his moral compass, or his intelligence.

I wish so badly that it were that simple.

Some people still adhere to the traditional adage that marijuana can only be bad. For teenagers, they say, it’s a gateway drug. For adults, it leads to laziness, a lack of productivity, and emotional stunting. For the most part, though, and especially in Washington state, it’s generally accepted as harmless in moderation for adults, on par with alcohol.

Some argue that it’s less harmful than alcohol. To be fair, there’s evidence that may be true. Alcohol use has been linked countless times to domestic violence. Marijuana has been linked to the opposite. Alcohol use has been linked to far more vehicle accidents than weed, even accounting for proportional use. And, of course, Washington state alone has nearly 40,000 medical marijuana patients who use it mainly as a far preferable alternative to opiates. You can’t overdose from it, and the withdrawal isn’t life-threatening like that associated with alcohol and other drugs,

Of course, it’s also associated in popular culture with giggling and munchie-driven antics. When you sit down to toke with some buds (pun intended), the worst that can happen is that you eat too much or spill some nasty-smelling water on your carpet. Maybe you remember some uncomfortable, hazy conversation from one in the morning in the backyard.

Or, if you’re Eric Filia, the worst that can happen is that you lose everything you’ve worked for your entire life.

I don’t know whether Eric Filia is addicted to marijuana. Addiction is a medical diagnosis, and I’m not a licensed physician, and I’m certainly not Eric Filia’s physician. But after Filia has been popped for the third time, and his entire career looks to be in jeopardy, it’s clear that he has a problem.

This problem isn’t unique to Filia. It’s taken down the careers of countless other athletes. The most notable examples include Astros draftee Jon Singleton, NBA athlete Larry Sanders and NFL stars Martavis Bryant and Josh Gordon. All of these guys had millions of dollars in front of them. Fame, fortune, glory, and above all, the promise of a materially easy life. All they had to do was “lay off” the weed for a few years. Easy, right? Just say no.

None of them could. For what many athletes would kill for, these athletes wouldn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, stop smoking weed.

It’s true, marijuana isn’t physically addictive. But it can lead to psychological dependence. And, as with anything that causes dependence, there’s a withdrawal. In one study, about half of patients were described as having “severe” withdrawals. Regardless of the study, the symptoms described are the same: insomnia, anhedonia, depression, anxiety, nausea, lack of appetite, suicidal ideation, and more.

I would know the above better than just about anyone. Like many of my peers, I smoked weed at the end of high school, and into college. It was a way to connect, and it was fun, and it was harmless. Maybe, without knowing it, it was a way to hide from some feelings. I’ve always been one to live too much in my head, and weed made that a little more bearable. It got me outside of myself a little more.

At first, it was a fun and harmless way to connect with friends a couple of times a week. After a while, it was four or five times a week. When I moved into a place with like-minded people, it became every day. I still went to work, and to school, and did well. It wasn’t impacting my life.

But before long, it wasn’t a way to connect with people. It was a way to connect with myself, because without realizing it, it had become the only way that I could be comfortable with myself. Four years after I’d begun, it became the only way I could get a decent night’s sleep. Every day at work became a journey to my couch. Even when spending time with friends, I could barely focus for thinking about how badly I wanted to smoke.

That 70’s Show never tells you that you might be lying in bed one night, acutely aware that you can’t be happy without weed, but also coming to the horrifying realization that weed has stopped making you happy. That it doesn’t seem like there’s any path to being happy at all.

Finally, in mid-2015, I realized what I was doing. I didn’t have a rock-bottom moment. I just saw who I’d become, and I didn’t want to be that person any more. So I stopped smoking weed. For a day, until I got the worst panic attack of my life. I tried to stop again a couple of weeks later and lasted three days, and didn’t sleep for any of them.

Finally, without recourse, I asked for help. I finally managed to quit in June of 2015, and I stayed clean until December, when I smoked once at a party. And then smoked again the next day, by myself. And so it went.

In October of 2016, I managed to quit again, and went through every horrid night all over again. For a month, every day was torture, every night a waking nightmare. Even when the worst of it was over, I had issues with depersonalization for nearly a year. If you’re not familiar, depersonalization is a sort of out of body experience — you don’t feel like yourself, and you can barely think.

Right now, I have exactly 900 days clean under my belt, and I still think about smoking weed almost every day. I still sometimes go to a support group, and I hear my story repeated back to me from a dozen other people every week. Some people, when they know they have to quit, can just stop, walk away, and never look back. I’m not one of those people. I got incredibly lucky to have a strong, supportive network on which to lean and a relatively stable foundation of mental health on which to build. Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone can just walk away.

Does Filia have a marijuana addiction? Singleton, by his own admission, did, or does, but did Sanders, Gordon, or Bryant? I can’t say. But when we have this many examples of athletes consistently choosing weed over their careers, their futures, and the work of their lives, something clearly isn’t right. It’s not an issue of willpower, intelligence, or morality. It’s an issue of mental health. MiLB can do better than suspending a player half the year and sending him home with empty hours to fill. His parent organization can do better than the tersely-worded statement they issued last year for his second positive test saying they were “disappointed” and “fully support the Program and its efforts.” And we as fans can do a whole lot better than suggesting that the player “just quit toking”.