Military struggles with marijuana state laws, ban on troops and testing standards

(From left) Tech. Sgt. Lucita Wargel, 735th Civil Engineer Squadron, and Staff Sgt. Bryan King, 721st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, recieve instructions on how to collect urine samples from Mr. jeffrey Kidd, Drug Testing Program Administrative Manager, during a sobriety checkpoint at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Feb. 7, 2009. Sobriety checkpoints are being held randomly throughout the Kaiserslautern military community in an effort to enforce a zero tolerance policy against driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Otero)

As more states legalize the recreational use of marijuana, the military continues to struggle with its ban on troops’ usage and testing standards.  Now that the District of Columbia, Oregon and Alaska have voted to permit use of the drug, the issue has taken on more significance.

According to The Washington Times, Army testing data showed that of approximately 41,000 soldiers stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, only about 75 percent were tested for marijuana in fiscal 2014.  Fort Carson in Colorado showed better statistics, where the numbers suggested officials had fully tested the 26,000 active-duty personnel stationed at the base over the same time period.

Overall troop usage military-wide has been on a steady decline over the years.  Army officials stated that they are content and confident in the service’s random testing regimen.  They feel is strong enough to deter soldiers from marijuana usage.  At this time, they have no plans to increase the frequency of their testing in states that have changed their pot laws or anywhere else.

“The results of our continued drug testing demonstrate the commitment soldiers have to the Army profession, regardless of a state’s legalization of marijuana,” Army Spokesman Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett said. “With 98 percent of the Army population testing negative for illicit drugs, soldiers demonstrate their ability to take responsibility for themselves, reinforcing the fact that our drug testing program is working.”

On the other hand, while active-duty military members have not shown greater inclination to use the drug in legalized states, the guidelines have been more uncertain when it concerns part-time soldiers and for military family members.  They are often housed off base in shared housing or among family members. In a shared housing situation, a roommate or spouse could legally grow marijuana or smoke it.  This could put a military member at risk.

After recreational use of marihuana was approved in 2012 in Washington state, a spokesman for Naval Base Kitsap stated that spouses who decide to smoke pot “would be putting their service member in a bad situation.” But the top legal adviser for the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado was quoted as saying it was “not my business what spouses do off base.”

The Washington Times reported a notice issued to military members reminded them that although the use of marijuana is now legal in several states, it remains illegal under federal law for dependents, employees, contractors and visitors, while on the installation, to use, possess, manufacture or distribute.

The website RallyPoint, a military community site, stated that the subject of family members’ responsibilities is a frequent topic of conversation.  The 400,000 users are active-duty Defense Department personnel and retired veterans.

Colorado Joint Counterdrug Task Force Commander Lt. Col. Rob Soper said officials are aware of the “challenges” associated with ensuring that reserve forces maintain the Defense Department’s zero-tolerance policy for substance abuse.

An increase in positive marijuana usage was recorded by the Colorado Army National Guard, with the number of soldiers testing positive jumping from 20 to 32 from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2014.  Since the sampling was small in nature, officials are hesitate to draw any conclusions about the effects of legalization.

“Even though it went into effect on January 1, I think it’s still a little too early to tell how much effect that this is having,” Soper said. “I mean, because these numbers are small.”

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