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What’s Next for Drugs in the Military?

As more Americans turn to cannabis as a safer alternative to opioids, it remains to be seen if the Armed Forces will allow their troops to follow suit

The Army recently released a public-health warning about the potentially dangerous side effects of vaping synthetic cannabis (like Spice) after approximately 60 soldiers were hospitalized for symptoms possibly associated with the lab-made drug. These symptoms ranged from headaches, nausea, vomiting and palpitations to dizziness, disorientation and seizures.

To be clear, Army regulations currently forbid all illicit drugs, which includes synthetic cannabis. Army Regulation 600–85, The Army Substance Abuse Program, specifically lists opium, heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, LSD, methamphetamine, PCP, barbituric acid, marijuana and any compound or derivative of any such substance. It also prohibits controlled substance analogues, “such as synthetic cannabis and other THC substitute (‘Spice’), derivatives of 2-aminopropanal (‘Bath Salts’), synthetic cocaine (‘RTI-126’) or any other substance similarly designed to mimic the effects of a controlled substance on the human body without an approved medical use in the United States.”

But because synthetic cannabis is difficult to detect through standard testing — producers continuously change the compounds to evade bans — it’s an extremely attractive substance for military personnel hoping to get high: A 2014 report published in the peer-reviewed journal Addictive Behaviors found that synthetic cannabis was “the only substance perceived to be used more by soldiers than by civilians.” They aren’t kidding: A whopping 38 percent of Army personnel admitted to using the substance.

Similarly, the Army prohibits the abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medications, but this hasn’t stopped soldiers from becoming hooked on them. Eleven percent of military personnel reported misusing prescription drugs in 2008, which was up from two percent in 2002 and four percent in 2005.

You can’t really blame soldiers for exploiting their pain meds, though: Pain-relief prescriptions (primarily for highly-addictive opioids) written by military physicians quadrupled between 2001 and 2009 — to almost 3.8 million — to compensate for combat-related injuries and the strain from carrying heavy equipment during multiple consecutive deployments.

Considering that, it’s no wonder veterans are twice as likely to overdose on opioids as other Americans.

All in all, it’s fair to say that the U.S. military has something of a substance-abuse problem. But then, it always has, with a lengthy and compelling track record of providing its soldiers with dangerous hard drugs. In Vietnam, the military readily supplied its troops with amphetamines (like speed) and steroids to “help” them manage extended combat. Michael Herr, correspondent for Esquire during the Vietnam War, describes this process in his wartime memoir Dispatches: “Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine [a powerful amphetamine derivative] breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar. […] I knew one 4th division Lurp who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it. He told me that they cooled things out just right for him, that he could see that old jungle at night like he was looking at it through a starlight scope. ‘They sure give you the range,’ he said.”

Research found that 3.2 percent of soldiers arriving in Vietnam were already heavy amphetamine users; this rate rose to 5.2 percent after one year of deployment.

The Defense Department also supplied soldiers in Vietnam with sedatives and neuroleptics (antipsychotic drugs) in an effort to reduce the terrible psychological impact of bloody combat. According to Łukasz Kamieński’s Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War, this explains the surprisingly low rate of combat trauma recorded during the conflict. “Whereas the rate of mental breakdowns among American soldiers was 10 percent during the Second World War (101 cases per 1,000 troops) and 4 percent in the Korean War (37 cases per 1,000 troops), in Vietnam it fell to just 1 percent (12 cases per 1,000 troops),” Kamieński points out.

Of course, these drugs were just a short-term fix, and many of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam later developed PTSD. Approximately 15 percent of Vietnam veterans were diagnosed with the condition in the late 1980s, and it’s now estimated that 30 percent of Vietnam veterans experienced PTSD during their lifetime.

The use of numerous other drugs also skyrocketed among military personnel during the war. A report released by the Pentagon in 1973 found that nearly 70 percent of returning soldiers had smoked weed, and more than a third had tried heroin.

In an attempt to avoid repeating this drug-addled history — and to curb the alarming rise in prescription drug abuse between 2002 and 2009, noted earlier — the Army recently cut back on prescribing opioids to active-duty soldiers and began offering additional programs (including mental health and substance-use treatments) to prevent substance misuse. Their efforts have proven to be at least somewhat successful: Opioid use in the military fell from about 10.5 percent in 2012 to about 7 percent in 2016, according to the Army Surgeon General.

A 2018 study of more than four million veterans also found an overall reduction in the amount of opioids being prescribed: Opioids were prescribed at least once to 20.8 percent of them in 2010, whereas this figure dropped to 16.1 percent by 2016.

Some veterans groups still believe that more can be done to reduce the impact of opioids on military personnel, including introducing medical weed into the equation. The American Legion, which has more than two million members, petitioned the government to relax federal restrictions on weed in 2016, and they may well be onto something: A recent five-year-long study argues that cannabis might actually discourage users from progressing to harder drugs, specifically opioids, and may even help veterans (and someday, active-duty soldiers) escape the grip of harder drugs.

Interestingly, the military has recently been forced to ease their cannabis policy amid a chronic (pun not intended) shortage of new personnel. As a result, the Army is reportedly granting more waivers to prospective soldiers who admit to having smoked weed, simply because they can’t find enough new recruits who have never touched the stuff. Five hundred waivers were granted for marijuana use in 2017, up from 191 in 2016 — for comparison, just four years ago, zero waivers were granted.

But here’s the kicker: They must vow to never use cannabis again.

It’s worth noting, too, that these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, because the military routinely hands out fewer waivers than the amount actually allowed under Defense Department guidelines. Recruits receiving these waivers are also required to make it through boot camp, which is probably an especially grueling experience when your drill instructor is well aware of your penchant for smoking a fatty (1,000 extra push-ups for the kid who thinks smoking pot is cool!).

Major General Jeff Snow, who heads the Army Recruiting Command, appears to believe that military rules on pot will continue to become more and more lax, however. He recently told the Los Angeles Times that he thinks more marijuana-use exclusions will be handed out as states continue to legalize or decriminalize the drug.

It’s a policy that makes little sense anyway: As the military history we’ve covered shows, some soldiers are always going to find a way to do drugs, perhaps even more enthusiastically than their civilian counterparts. Why wouldn’t they? Injuries, stress and a drug-pushing government aside, the biggest factor at work here is the sheer boredom that most soldiers face, a boredom that lasts for interminable stretches between short bouts of unimaginably intense action. Who wouldn’t want to get high to make it through that?

All of which, finally, brings us back to the problem of synthetic cannabis. As a drug, it’s far more dangerous than natural cannabis, but soldiers are left with little choice but to use it since it’s harder to detect than regular medical marijuana (which, again, is also banned, including CBD, which is non-psychoactive).

Will this unnecessary risk spark a change in policy?

It’s hard to say. The idea that smoking a little weed now and again is more harmful than being hooked on prescription opioids is one that much of America is coming to view as antiquated and flat-out wrong. But whether the military — an infamously unmalleable institution — will eventually come around to this view is another question entirely.