“Hundreds fail UK military drug tests”, reported the Yorkshire Post in late 2011. “Battalion’s worth of soldiers sacked for drug taking every year”, said the Telegraph in mid-2015. The same article also reported hundreds of soldiers retaining their positions despite positive drug tests, potentially due to the recruitment difficulties that the Services continue to face. In 2016, nearly 1,000 members of the Armed Forces tested positive for drug abuse, with the numbers higher than the previous year for the Army, the RAF and the Royal Navy alike.
Drug taking by soldiers is nothing new. In the 1800s, many American Civil War soldiers became addicted to morphine when it was used as a painkiller, while in World War Two, doctors prescribed amphetamines to both British and American soldiers to relieve battle fatigue. Now, however, things are seen very differently indeed.
Illegal drugs and alcohol - in the short, medium and long-term alike - can have a serious impact on both mental and physical health: a direct threat to the work that the Armed Forces carry out. Despite the potential risks involved in drug (including steroid) and alcohol use, however, testing and policies vary widely from country to country across the globe. There is no standardised approach in place, and no consistent approved testing method, or even a consensus on tolerance levels.
In this piece, we investigate just how different the drug and alcohol policies are in countries around the world.
In the UK, all service personnel are subject to compulsory random drug testing.
The Ministry of Defence states that “The Armed Forces do not tolerate the taking of illegal drugs within their ranks, as it is incompatible with military service and reduces operational effectiveness.” A positive result almost always results in an administrative discharge, as can be seen in the discharge stats from 2011.
While drug tests are also conducted on application for a position, different regiments will interpret them differently. Those wishing to apply for the Gurkha regiment, for example, may be allowed to proceed with their application if they have a history of drug abuse, while a definite history of alcohol or drug abuse is “normally a bar” to Army Air Corps pilot training.
Samples are tested, using urine analysis, for substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. However, such testing can give inconclusive results (if urine is too diluted, for example), and can also show false positives brought on by over-the-counter medications.
Reports show that the use of illegal drugs in the US military is low - but that abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol is higher than amongst civilians. The US Department of Defense therefore has a wide programme of analysis, based on urine analysis. Since 2013 they have tested for certain prescription drugs such as Xanax and Ativan in addition to illegal substances, with plans to test for all prescription drugs over time.
AR 600-85 - the Army Substance Abuse Program - sets out the US military’s drug and alcohol regulations. The alcohol regulations are more relaxed than those covering illegal drugs: soldiers must ensure that they do not drink during duty hours, and must have a blood alcohol content lower than .05 grams of alcohol per 100ml of blood. If rehabilitation is required, soldiers are subject to monthly blood or breath tests. Outside rehabilitation cases, however, “no testing rate is currently mandated”, with commanders given the opportunity to conduct screening or confirmation tests when required.
For illegal and certain prescription drugs, random urine testing is used, with different testing rates for different units. Steroid testing is conducted separately - although the taking of steroids for prescribed medical purposes is allowed. While some who test positive for illegal drugs may be retained in the US military, others will be offered rehabilitation before being discharged.
Illicit drug use and alcohol abuse are not tolerated in the Australian Defence Forces. This includes marijuana, despite it being decriminalised for medical use in a number of Australian states. The ADF uses the Customs Act 1901 to define further “prohibited substances”; this includes steroids such as androstenediol and DHEA.
The zero tolerance approach to drug abuse sees a likely immediate discharge for those testing positive, but the ADF’s alcohol policy is far more relaxed. Alcohol is banned on the majority of deployments but “usually no more than one or two” drinks may be allowed on others.
The ADF employs random urine testing for most substances, with targeted testing used to assess abuse of steroids. 25% of ADF personnel are tested for drugs as a minimum - an increase from the previous level of 10%.
Despite the stringent regulations, the Australian armed forces have hit the headlines in recent decades due to their drug and alcohol use. In 2004, urine samples were deemed to have been taken “in a manner inconsistent with the Defence Act”, while in 2016, ADF documents revealed that hundreds of recruits had tested positive for drugs in the last four years, with ecstasy the most common drug detected.
Is urine testing the best way?
While the UK, US and Australian military all currently employ urine analysis for illegal drug and steroid testing, is this really the best way? Urine samples can be collected or processed wrongly, give false positives or offer inconclusive results.
For roles like these, where national and international security are at stake, the most rigorous testing method should be in place. While hair analysis may prove more expensive, it also offers a conclusive, long term picture of an individual’s substance use: ideal for both pre-selection testing and random drug tests.
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