Who's Doing What, and How They Get Caught: A Look at Drug Use and Testing Within the Military
By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 26, 2001 - If you had visited a typical military unit in 1983, about one out of e, Nov. 26, 2001 If you had visited a typical military unit in 1983, about one out of every four service members would have used illegal drugs.
If you had visited the same unit in 1998, about three out of 100 service members admitted to using drugs.
Between 1983 and 1998, the fraction of service members admitting to frequent drug use dropped from 23 percent to 2.7 percent. Officials say there are many reasons for the drop.
DoD is attacking the problem on the two fronts of supply and demand. Education and deterrence are the key aspects of reducing demand for illegal drugs, Andre Hollis, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics, said.
Generally, Hollis explained, the services don't take every one to court for illegal drug use, but most members are not allowed to remain on active duty. "That creates, I think, a strong deterrent to violating the rules," he told American Forces Radio and Television Service.
Hollis described educating troops on the dangers and consequences of illegal drug use as the duty of military leaders. "We as leaders must be responsible for the health and welfare of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines," he said.
DoD also works closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration to halt the flow of illegal drugs into the country. Hollis explained that DEA is responsible for identifying sources of drug production; while DoD is responsible for monitoring and detecting drug shipments.
The current war on terrorism has direct bearing on the illegal drug trade as well, in ways that are of particular concern to DoD. Afghanistan is one of the world's leading suppliers of opium - a drug further refined into morphine and heroin.
Drugs that come out of Afghanistan are shipped primarily to Europe, where American service members and American allies can fall victim to drug abuse and associated violent crimes, Hollis said.
"Perhaps more insidious, the pipeline that these narcotraffickers use to ship their drugs and to sell their drugs is also the pipeline that they use for financing terrorism and arms sales, for smuggling illegal aliens, money and for potentially weapons of mass destruction, and for abusing women," Hollis said. "It's a vile pipeline that's used for a variety of evil purposes."
Increased use of the popular club drug commonly called ecstasy is a disturbing trend in the military community as well as among civilians. "Many people fail to realize ... that ecstasy is a dangerous drug," Hollis said. He cited studies that show even infrequent use can cause serious impairment of cognitive functions.
"That's particularly of concern within the armed forces, where our young people are in charge of and responsible for sophisticated pieces of equipment," he said.
Army Col. Mick Smith agreed. Smith is an expert on drug testing in Hollis's office. "Military people have a dangerous job," he said. "They operate heavy equipment and use complex integrated computer systems."
Smith described a recent Johns Hopkins University study on monkeys given typical doses of ecstasy for a three-day period. "It would be comparable to someone bingeing over a weekend," he said. Tests showed the animals had a significant depletion of nerve cells that produce serotonin - the chemical in the brain that makes us feel good - a year and a half later.
"There's very good evidence that even small amounts of ecstasy can cause permanent brain damage," Smith said during an American Forces Press Service interview.
To combat this rising health concern, DoD is planning to use more sensitive tests to detect ecstasy during routine urine testing. Smith explained that active duty service members must undergo a urine drug test annually. Reserve component members must be tested at least every two years, he said.
The new test for ecstasy will expand the "window of detection," the amount of time after a drug is used that it can still be detected in urine, Smith said. He said all six DoD urine-testing laboratories should be using the new ecstasy test within six months.
During 2000, roughly 1,000 service members tested positive for ecstasy use and were removed from the military, Smith said.
Despite recent concerns over ecstasy use, marijuana remains the most heavily used illegal drug within the military. And marijuana isn't a "safe" drug either, Smith stressed. He cited a Harvard University study that shows chronic users have memory and learning deficits even after they stop using. "It does have some long-term effects on the brain," Smith said.
DoD labs test 60,000 urine samples each month, but it would be next to impossible for a mistaken positive result to affect a service member's career. Smith described the steps taken after troops "fill the bottle."
First, individuals initial the label on their own bottles. The bottles are boxed into batches, and the test administrator begins a chain-of-custody document for each batch, Smith explained.
"This is a legal document," Smith said of the chain-of- custody form. "Everybody who has had something to do with that sample signs it - whether it be the observer who watched the person collect the sample, the person who puts it into the box or the person who takes it out of the box. We have a written record of who those individuals are."
The chain-of-custody requirement continues in the lab as well. People who come in contact with each sample and what exactly they do to the sample are written on the document, Smith said.
Samples then undergo an initial immunoassay screening. Those that test positive for the presence of drugs at this point undergo the same screen once again. Finally, those that come up positive during two screening tests are put through a much more specific gas chromatography/mass spectrometry test. This test can identify specific substances within the urine samples, he said.
Even if a particular drug is detected, if the level is below a certain threshold, the test result is reported back to the commander as negative. "The system is really built to protect the service member whose sample is coming through the laboratory," Smith said.
DoD labs are equipped to test for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, LSD, opiates (including morphine and heroin), barbiturates and PCP. But not all samples are tested for all of these drugs.
"Every sample gets tested for marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines, including ecstasy," Smith said. Tests for other drugs are done at random on different schedules for each lab. "Some laboratories do test every sample for every drug," he added.
Commanders can request samples be tested for steroids. In this case, the samples are sent to the Olympic testing laboratory at the University of California at Los Angeles, Smith explained.
Inevitably, someone will try to "beat the test." But, Smith said, common rumors that make the rounds on military bases won't help you a bit.
He said commonly available substances such as golden seal and lasix are often touted as magical substances that can mask drugs in urine. In fact, they can make it easier to get caught. Smith explained these substances are diuretics, so if they're taken before giving a urine sample they flush chemicals out of the body - right into the collection cup.
Drugs are often more concentrated in the urine after a service member takes one of these substances, Smith said.
And other "sure-fire" solutions are even worse for you. "Some people drink vinegar. I've even heard a few stories of people drinking bleach," Smith said. "I think they were probably worse off after drinking bleach than if they had used drugs."
Smith also debunked some other common rumors. He said over- the-counter cold medications and dietary supplements might cause a screening test to come up positive, but that the more specific secondary testing would positively identify the medication. "The report that goes back to the commander says negative," he said.
The military services test for drug use and have adopted a zero-tolerance policy on drug use among military members because the stakes are so high. Drug use in a unit "interferes with their ability to complete their mission," Smith said. "We don't have time for that, particularly when we're fighting a war."
Hollis agreed. Readiness is critical right now, he said. "Everybody must recognize that drug use does not help this country or its cause," he said. "It's stupid; it affects your health; it affects your career; and it affects the readiness of your unit."
Hollis said he had a message for service members using drugs or thinking about it: "Think about what this country has gone through (since Sept. 11). Think about what we're undertaking in terms of this armed conflict (in Afghanistan)," he said. "We need you all to be alert, to be ready to go at a moment's notice. ... We're calling on you to do a very important job, and we need to know that you're responsible and alert so you can take care of each other."