Two years after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for recreational use, the military community is struggling to reconcile the state laws with its outright ban while falling short of its own standards for drug testing in some areas where pot is now freely available.
The issue has taken on a new relevance with Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia voting Tuesday to legalize marijuana, adding to a host of other states that have loosened criminal penalties for possession or use of the drug in recent years.
But while marijuana laws are rapidly changing across the country, Pentagon statistics show that mandatory annual drug testing is not necessarily keeping pace.
Army testing data obtained by The Washington Times through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that of about 41,000 soldiers stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, only about 75 percent — or 30,836 soldiers — were tested for marijuana in fiscal 2014.
The numbers were better at Fort Carson in Colorado, where the numbers suggested officials had fully tested the 26,000 active-duty personnel stationed at the base over the same period.
Officials say the expectations for active-duty personnel are clear — a zero-tolerance policy against marijuana use has been in place since the Reagan administration — and figures show a decline from last year at both bases in the number of active-duty soldiers who test positive for the drug.
SEE ALSO: Marijuana legalization measure passes easily in D.C.
At Lewis-McChord in Washington, where marijuana became legal in December 2012, the number of soldiers testing positive for marijuana dropped from 315 in fiscal 2012 to 250 in fiscal 2013.
Fort Carson in Colorado saw a similar reduction, from 365 in fiscal 2012 to 254 the next year. Legalization took effect there in January 2013.
Army officials say they’re satisfied that the service’s random testing regimen is enough of a deterrent to soldiers and that they have no plans to increase the frequency of their testing in states that have changed their pot laws or anywhere else.
“The results of our continued drug testing demonstrate the commitment soldiers have to the Army profession, regardless of a state’s legalization of marijuana,” Army spokesman Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett said. “With 98 percent of the Army population testing negative for illicit drugs, soldiers demonstrate their ability to take responsibility for themselves, reinforcing the fact that our drug testing program is working.”
But while active-duty personnel have not shown greater inclination to use the drug, the guidelines have been more ambiguous for part-time soldiers and for military family members, who often live off base in shared housing or among family members. In a shared housing situation, for example, a roommate or spouse could legally grow marijuana or smoke it — placing a soldier in a potentially compromising position.
In 2012, after the legalization measure was approved in Washington state, a spokesman for Naval Base Kitsap told Army Times that spouses who decide to smoke pot “would be putting their service member in a bad situation.” But the top legal adviser for the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado was quoted by the publication as saying it was “not my business what spouses do off base.”
As recently as June, ahead of the opening of marijuana retail stores in Washington, Lewis-McChord officials issued a notice in the base newspaper reminding personnel their responsibilities under federal law had not changed. While 17 bullet points discussed the provisions of the new marijuana law, just one referred to military members’ “dependents.”
“Marijuana remains illegal under federal law for dependents, employees, contractors and visitors, while on the installation, to use, possess, manufacture or distribute,” the notice stated.
The subject of family members’ responsibilities is a frequent topic of conversation on the military community website RallyPoint, which has about 400,000 users who are active-duty Defense Department personnel and retired veterans.
Yinon Weiss, a former Army Green Beret and the CEO of RallyPoint, provided several posts from service members who expressed concern and confusion about how troops should manage relaxed restrictions on marijuana in their states.
“For married service members, I think the military has to allow family members to do what they’re now legally allowed to do, especially in the privacy of their own home,” wrote one soldier, whose name Mr. Weiss withheld to protect their identity. “If that means a soldier has plants in his or her house but they continually pass a urine test, so be it.”
The experience doesn’t end with the active-duty Army. In fact, it’s more pronounced among part-time soldiers who report to bases in the states where marijuana is legal.
With regard to drug testing, in fiscal 2013 only 1,523 of the Colorado Army National Guard’s 3,978 military personnel were tested for marijuana, according to the data. The statistics also show that Washington Army National Guard company commanders in fiscal year 2014 tested 3,320 of its soldiers for marijuana, even though there are 6,198 part-time soldiers serving in the guard.
Positive marijuana tests among Washington state Army National Guard soldiers dropped from 68 in fiscal 2013 to 26 in the last fiscal year.
The state’s counterdrug program director, Lt. Col. David Hamilton, cautioned the tests might not tell the whole story yet since retail pot shops only opened last summer and legalized marijuana remains in short supply.
Colorado Joint Counterdrug Task Force Commander Lt. Col. Rob Soper said officials are aware of the “challenges” associated with ensuring that reserve forces maintain the Defense Department’s zero-tolerance policy for substance abuse.
“Many of our traditional guardsmen are guardsmen 28 days a year. They perform duties two days a month. So they’re out there in the community,” he said. “It’s difficult. They’re part of the community. That’s what we are, that’s what National Guardsmen are — part of the community and part-time soldiers.”
The Colorado Army National Guard recorded an increase in positive test results, with the number of soldiers testing positive jumping from 20 to 32 from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2014. But officials there also hesitated to draw conclusions about the effects of legalization since the sample size was so small.
“Even though it went into effect on January 1, I think it’s still a little to early to tell how much effect that this is having,” Lt. Col. Soper said. “I mean, because these numbers are small.”