Attrition: Drug Casualties And Collateral Damage


February 10, 2012:  The Philippines military recently began conducting an investigation into drug use in the armed forces. It's apparently widespread. So the first step was to test the nearly 400 personnel who were to investigate the problem. Illegal drugs, particularly methamphetamine (from Burma and elsewhere) are a growing problem throughout the Philippines. The military, especially air force and navy technical personnel, and intelligence specialists from all services, are especially vulnerable because if they make an error on duty they can do a lot of damage. For this reason, many nations are establishing drug testing for military personnel. It’s expensive but it's also obvious that not testing is more expensive. 

A major problem is the growing number of new drugs. For example, the U.S. military increasingly discharges personnel caught using and distributing recreational drugs. The problem is that many of the drugs are new, unknown and not yet illegal. The U.S. military constantly warns its troops to stay away from any mind altering substances (except commonly accepted stuff alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, and nicotine).

For nearly a decade now the U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to do something about troops using recreational drugs that are not yet illegal. There is also a crackdown on the use of drugs that mask use of illegal drugs. Seven years ago the U.S. military began issuing orders banning the use of anything that gets you high, whether it was legal or not. Not everyone paid attention. Meanwhile, an explosion of chemical knowledge has made it easier to develop new drugs that will, well, make you high. Some entrepreneurs try to make a lot of money with such new substances before they are outlawed. After that the gangsters take over, adding the new drug to their product list. To further complicate the situation for the U.S. military (which has personnel in over a hundred countries) not all nations outlaw all these new drugs.

The biggest problem here is that the random urine tests no longer work as well as they used to. Over the last five years an increasing number of test defeating products have appeared on the market. In response, the U.S. Navy prohibited sailors from possessing any of these test defeating products. If this doesn't reduce the cheating sufficiently the navy may have to go to hair tests. Drug traces remain in the hair for about 90 days but it is more time consuming and expensive to test hair.

In the meantime, the U.S. military changed its policy on random drug testing. Instead of one unannounced urine test for everyone in a unit each year there will now be as many as four random tests a month for each unit, with 15 percent of the members of the unit being tested each month. This approach was meant to discourage more personnel from being tempted to use drugs. Troops caught using drugs are usually discharged. The new testing policy was not as successful as hoped. So now the military is conducting more investigations where drug use is suspected and discharging those caught disobeying the rules.

The U.S. military has a tremendous incentive to halt the drug use. It costs, on average, $150,000 to replace each of these discharged troops. While the percentage of sailors testing positive has declined in the last year it still averages about one percent a year. In nations where there is no testing a third or more of the troops are sometimes found to be users.


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