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DoD Winning 30-Year War Against Drugs in the Ranks

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2000 – The incidence of service members using illegal drugs is at a 20-year low, evidence that DoD is winning the war against drug abuse in its ranks -- a conflict that began during the Vietnam War.

Ana Maria Salazar, deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement policy and support, noted that drug use by DoD personnel is down 90 percent compared to two decades ago. Just 2.6 percent of all service members reported drug use within the 30 days preceding their response to a 1998 survey, she said. More than 27 percent of respondents in a 1980 survey said they used illegal drugs in the preceding 30 days, she noted.

"Overall, the use of illegal drugs by service members is down. Drug use has decreased every year since we started monitoring it in 1980," Salazar said.

She pointed to the effectiveness of DoD's "zero tolerance" policy toward drug use, pre-employment and random drug testing, and substance abuse education programs. She also cited DoD's participation in such drug awareness information campaigns as national Red Ribbon Week -- Oct. 23-31 this year.

"Drug use is incompatible with military service. Not tolerating drug use is the cornerstone of our deterrence program," she said. "Our system identifies users and ensures that they are punished. This approach deters drug use by other service members and promotes readiness."

Salazar noted that drug use "has always been a national security concern" that affects both the Defense Department and civilian society. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, illegal drugs cost the national economy $110 billion in expenses and lost revenue in 1995, she said.

"Drug use by service members threatens their readiness to defend our nation," she said. "Drug use by society in general damages our ability as a nation to have a strong economy with citizens who are focused on healthy lifestyles. This, in itself, threatens security."

Almost a third of service members weren't living drug-free lifestyles 20 years ago, but drug use had become a problem for the U.S. military much earlier, Salazar said. In 1970, increasing numbers of service members in Vietnam were found to be using heroin and other illegal drugs. This prompted President Nixon in 1971 to direct the secretary of defense to initiate a program of drug prevention, identification of abusers and treatment.

Throughout "the post-Vietnam era" of the 1970s and early 1980s, many young Americans -- military and civilian -- experimented with illegal drugs like marijuana, LSD and cocaine. DoD had been conducting drug tests on service members since 1971, in large part to identify and treat heroin addicts who'd picked up the habit in Southeast Asia, Salazar said.

Ten years later, service members were found to be using more and different types of illegal drugs. Drug use in the military was prevalent, with the 1980 military survey identifying disturbing drug abuse problems among both enlisted members and junior officers, Salazar said.

"At that time, units with as much as one-third of their members using drugs were unprepared for combat," she said.

The tripwire was an explosion aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on May 26, 1981. The ship suffered 14 people dead, 48 injured and $150 million in property losses, including seven aircraft destroyed and 11 damaged. DoD adopted its "zero tolerance" drug policy in 1982 after investigators indicated Nimitz crewmen's drug use possibly contributed to the disaster.

"Drug users are more prone to have accidents, to use poor judgment and more likely to injure themselves and others ... the disaster aboard the Nimitz is a grim reminder of this fact," Salazar said. "As a group, drug users have demonstrated that they do not maintain the unit morale necessary to carry out the dangerous duties we demand of military personnel."

As part of its drug deterrence efforts, "DoD must encourage its members to become active in drug education and community support," Salazar said. Each of the services manages programs that distribute information on the dangers of drug use, she said.

"Among the most effective educational tools are local community programs that focus on children and families," she added. The annual Secretary of Defense Community Drug Awareness Award, for example, recognizes outstanding service-level drug awareness programs. Many of these programs, Salazar said, feature service members interacting with military and civilian communities as educators and youth role models.

DoD officials are also alert for any new patterns in youth drug use, such as the illegal "designer drug" Ecstacy. Service members' use of Ecstasy, although small, increased from a prevalence of 0.004 percent in fiscal 1998 to 0.019 in 1999, Salazar said.

"Civilian police agencies tell us that in 1999 elements of organized crime dramatically increased the amount of Ecstasy sold on the streets," she said. "Large numbers of young people across the nation began to use this dangerous drug, which can cause brain damage, and some of them died as a result."

DoD anticipated that Ecstasy might be an emerging drug and mandated testing in 1997, said Salazar, noting that "through testing we've deterred many young people from using the drug." This year, she added, DoD plans to use a more sensitive drug test that will identify more Ecstasy users.

She credits DoD's drug urinalysis program as being "one of our most effective programs" in fighting the war against drugs in the ranks.

"When any drug users are identified, appropriate punitive action is taken, depending on the program, and can range from mandatory rehabilitation to courts-martial," she said. "The numbers speak for themselves in measuring the effectiveness of this program."

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