Once, your chances of acceptance in the United States Military as someone who either uses or used cannabis in the past were nil. The military is famous for its zero-tolerance policy towards drugs. Yet it seemed as if things were beginning to change. In February 2018, Mark Esper, the Army Secretary at the time, made an important announcement. He said the Army was willing to permit applicants who used marijuana in the past but were otherwise qualified.
According to Esper, it was okay as long as the person is not a frequent user. However, they must have smoked cannabis in a state where it is legal. He made it clear that he was unwilling to accept anyone who refused to quit their marijuana habit.
This attitude is a long way from the age-old U.S. Military view on the use of drugs or the abuse of alcohol. All applicants are screened concerning their use of drugs and alcohol. The military will ask you the following questions:
- Have you ever used drugs?
- Have you ever been charged/convicted of a drug offense or a drug tested offense?
- Have you ever been physically/psychologically dependent on any drug or alcohol?
- Have you ever sold, traded, or trafficked illegal drugs for profit?
It seemed as if recruiters would become more lenient on applicants who answer ‘yes’ to the first two questions. If you admit to using weed more than five times or else you have used ‘hard drugs,’ you need a waiver to get into the military. Air Force recruits who have smoked weed between 15 and 25 times will receive a Drug Eligibility Determination. It is not quite the same as a waiver. Also, in the Air Force, you don’t need a waiver if you used marijuana less than 15 times.
Don’t Forget the Drug Screening!
Additionally, all recruits undergo a urinalysis test during their initial processing and again when they report for basic training. Therefore, it is a terrible idea to smoke before joining the Army! Remember, a urine test can detect weed use within the previous seven days if you’ve only used it once. If you are a habitual user, a test can detect THC metabolites anywhere from 30 to 100 days later!
Why Is the Military Softening Its Stance on Past Weed Use?
While it is a LONG way from tolerance, it is interesting to learn that the U.S. Military is less strict on this issue. However, you can probably guess the reason: A lack of qualified recruits. An article from Time in 2014 suggested that 71% of youths would fail to meet the minimum requirements for enlistment! Here is a very brief outline of the Army’s current recruitment process:
- Step 1: Take the Armed Services Aptitude Battery test.
- Step 2: Complete a physical examination which involves a drug screening.
- Step 3: Meet a service enlistment counselor to discuss your career in the Armed Forces.
- Step 4: Take an oath.
Step 1 is necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. It should ensure the military consists of nothing but healthy, intelligent, and capable recruits. You can get through with a low test score, but such recruits are known as Category Four. As it happens, that percentage is growing rapidly. Category Four recruits score 30 or less out of 99 on the test. The Pentagon has set a limit of 4% on Category Four soldiers. Also, these individuals do not receive a waiver for past weed use.
Wave Upon Wave of Waivers
Back in 2013, only 0.2% of recruits were Category Four, but in 2017, the number skyrocketed to 1.9%. The ever-changing legal landscape of weed started causing issues. As did the need for the Army to recruit 80,000 soldiers during the 2018 fiscal year. Eventually, it lowered its target to 76,500, and only recruited 70,000! As a result, the Army had to issue more waivers than ever before. And incredibly, this extended to weed use while in the Army.
The number of waivers issued by the Army for active-duty soldiers in 2017 was 500. This was almost triple the 2016 figure of 191 exemptions.
Major General Jeffrey Snow, the leader of the Army’s recruiting command, said he is happy to issue waivers. However, these recruits must understand that they are forbidden from using marijuana while on active duty. They must also pledge never to do it again. For reference, the Army issued no waivers of this nature in 2014.
Also, Snow readily acknowledges that the number of waivers issued will grow considerably. He knows that the number of medicinal and recreational users of cannabis is growing. Also, most states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Avoiding Past Problems
There is another reason to display a higher level of leniency. Problems with ill-discipline plagued the military during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. At that time, the Army fast-tracked soldiers through the ranks to meet deployment demands. However, the desperation for new troops meant that an increased number of recruits with criminal records were brought in. Therefore, an increased number of misconduct waivers were necessary.
As a result, a rise in behavioral problems amongst soldiers damaged the Army. It seems as if the military finally understands that past weed use is nothing to be concerned about. It is better to have smoked marijuana a handful of times than to have a history of domestic violence, for example!
What If I Have a Medical Marijuana Card?
At the time of writing, MMJ cardholders are not exempt from the general prohibition against illegal substances. HIPAA, which usually ensures your medical records are kept confidential, doesn’t protect you against a background check to determine if you were ever an MMJ cardholder. However, you could still receive a waiver as long as you don’t use cannabis while in the military.
Do you live in a state where weed is legal for recreational use, or in a state where MMJ is legal, and you have a card? If so, you could theoretically get high regularly while in the military, and you’ll be fine. The problem is the Military Drug Test Program, which tests up to 60,000 urine samples a month. All active members of the military have to undergo a urinalysis at least once a year. There are random drug tests conducted with no notice.
Also, your commander can request a search authorization if he/she believes a soldier is under the influence of drugs. You are judged to have failed the urinalysis if there are 50+ nanograms of THC per ml of urine at the Screening Level, and 15 nanograms per ml at the Confirmation Level.
Returning to Unhelpful Habits
It seemed as if the U.S. Military would finally eliminate its total anti-cannabis policy. Then, Esper became the United States Secretary of Defense in 2019. Ryan McCarthy took over as the Secretary of the Army, and we are now seeing a return to the ‘old ways.’ Once again, the military is leaning towards its zero-tolerance stance, and it will only damage recruitment standards.
What’s worse is that in February 2020, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced a new policy. It now bans all active and reserve members from using hemp products, including CBD. The suggestion is that the risk of exposure to products containing excess THC is too high.
Meanwhile, in 2018, almost 2% of recruits in the Army were of the Category Four variety. The likelihood is that this figure will increase as the military struggles to get new members. A RAND study from a decade ago says that Category Four recruits are up to 30% less effective than Category Two or Three soldiers. Yet the military insists on banning hemp, let alone cannabis!
Final Thoughts on Marijuana in the Military
The United States Military aims to recruit up to 180,000 people during the fiscal year in all of its combined forces. Up until a few years ago, you were disqualified from joining if you smoked weed even once. Recreational users had no chance. You could, of course, lie and say you have never smoked before. However, if you used cannabis recently, the urinalysis would likely catch you out.
The bottom line is that today, there is a decreasing number of qualified recruits. The military is reluctantly moving with the times, but it is persisting with its antiquated stance for the time being. Marijuana is legal for recreational use in 11 states (and D.C.), plus another 22 states for medicinal use. This means the number of people who have never smoked is falling rapidly.
As a result, the U.S. Military must either pick recruits from a shallow pool of talent or face the facts. Weed is here to stay! Smoking it occasionally doesn’t make you a criminal, nor does it impact your ability to serve with honor. However, you still can’t smoke while on active duty.
That said, soldiers have historically used marijuana to help them get through the horrors of war. Check out our article on how soldiers turned to cannabis during the Vietnam War. Some estimates claim that over a million American troops used Mary Jane while fighting!