In March 2021, five White House staffers were reportedly fired for their past use of marijuana. The use of cannabis has been a touchy issue for the Biden administration as 15 states as well as Washington, D.C., currently allow for recreational usage of marijuana – despite a federal prohibition. Currently, some lawmakers in the nation’s capital continue to push for a sweeping marijuana decriminalization bill.
For now, it is important to stress that marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, and past usage could be an issue for those seeking to enter the military. Yet, the services have had to face the fact that those rules may need to be “relaxed,” and while no one is encouraging would-be recruits to chill out or smoke up, the United States Air Force and the United States Space Force could be boldly going where the services haven’t quite gone before – it could look past pass usage of the recreational drug.
Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, commander, Air Force Recruiting Service at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, explained that it is becoming necessary to consider the option of granting waivers to recruits who test positive for THC, the main “high-inducing” chemical found in marijuana, prior to shipping out for training.
In other words, what happened in the past could be forgiven.
“If applicants test positive for THC when they go to the MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station), they’re permanently barred from entering the Air Force or the Space Force,” he told the Air Force Times.
“But as more states legalize cannabis, there is an increased prevalence of THC-positive applicants,” Thomas added. “We have to be realistic today. We need to exercise common sense.”
If that applicant who does test positive, is otherwise qualified to serve, the Air Force and Space Force are now willing to grant a waiver. Of course, those applicants would be expected not to use marijuana in the future.
Change of Policy for new Recruits
The DoD has long maintained a strict zero-tolerance policy that prohibits troops from smoking, eating, or otherwise using marijuana and marijuana-derived products. That includes those that contain CBD or THC. However, it has largely been up to the individual services to set their own policies on how to handle those applicants who have used those products before enlisting.
As much as some Air Force officials might not like to admit it, the service is actually following the lead of the United States Navy. It began a two-year pilot program last year that allowed qualified applicants who had tested positive for marijuana or THC at MEPS to receive a waiver to move on to boot camp following a 90-day waiting period. That program, which began in April 2021, will continue until April 2023. It is important to note that waivers are still only being authorized for a positive drug test for marijuana or THC.
The other services also have issued waivers for those who tested positive or marijuana.
The United States Army currently enforces a 90-day waiting period before recruits who test positive for THC when entering MEPS can request a waiver to join the service. However, if a “first-time” offender subsequently tests positive again for any drug, that individual would be disqualified from joining the Army.
Likewise, the United States Marine Corps currently allows THC-positive recruits to request a waiver that would override their disqualification.
If that is approved, the recruit could return to MEPS after 45 days.
Necessary Move for Pentagon?
The Pentagon is increasingly under pressure to make these changes, due to the confusion as some states – and the aforementioned D.C. – have “legalized” the use of recreational cannabis.
In fact, currently, all but 11 states have legalized marijuana for medical and/or recreational use. The only states where it is still illegal include Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
One issue is that more than half of all new recruits currently come from those states where medical marijuana is legal. It is also increasingly becoming a big business, with sales projected to reach $33 billion by the end of 2022.
DoD data from 2020 found that 8% of Americans between the ages of 17 to 24 could be disqualified from military service due to drug use. It should be noted too that those numbers do cover a broader range of prescription and illegal drugs than just marijuana.
“The military is facing a serious challenge, and that is a reflection of the positive job market, where companies have to pay more to attract talented candidates,” said Robert A. Sanders, captain, JAG Corps, U.S. Navy (Retired), and a distinguished lecturer for national security at the University of New Haven.
“We also see that recruits can still be disqualified for many other reasons,” Sanders told ClearanceJobs.
As a result, the military will likely continue to face a hard road ahead to fill its ranks.
Everyone smoking It?
Though the Pentagon may have found that 8% of candidates may have used marijuana in the past, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually reported that cannabis is the most commonly used federally illegal drug, and about 18% had used it at least once in 2019. A Gallup poll also found that between 2016 and 2021, 16 percent of all Americans said they regularly smoked marijuana.
The military may have to accept that the widespread use is higher than its data may have found.
“This is a function of reality that as states are making it legal, people in the talent pool could be increasingly using it. It is reasonable to believe that,” added Sanders. “But, it is also reasonable to believe that continued marijuana use by active military personnel would be a serious problem. The consequences of those who have to maintain our aircraft or use weapons while high are a concern.”
Sanders explained a waiver could be a good first step, but that it should come with some restrictions.
“The U.S. Navy’s method allows you to be withdrawn and then come back,” he continued. “If you got in on a waiver, and made it through the basic training without a positive test, I would still see the need for an ongoing testing period. It would be much like a probationary period in the civilian world. And I’d like to see it include some counseling.”
Though that may seem extreme for cannabis, the CDC’s data has suggested that as many as three in 10 who use marijuana regularly could have a disorder.
“If you come from a group setting, where the usage is the norm, to a group setting where it is essentially a crime, it is going to be an issue for some,” said Sanders. “That is also a major change in lifestyle.”
That change would occur during military training, which can also require a major adjustment. Some users may find marijuana to be a coping mechanism, for example.
“You may be able to tell some of those users, just stop. But this isn’t Nancy Reagan’s ‘just say no,'” Sanders suggested. “Past marijuana use shouldn’t be a deal break breaker, and we don’t want to throw away potentially great candidates, but I think we need to help them reach their potential.”