Attrition: Ships, Drugs And Heads Will Roll

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July 2, 2009: The U.S. Navy is in the process of tossing fifteen sailors out of the navy, for dealing in legal drugs. All fifteen are from the newly arrived (in Japan) carrier USS George Washington, and the drugs were legal in Japan, some were not legal back in the United States. This is all part of a growing problem in the military, as the troops try get around the random drug tests by using legal, or very new (and eventually be outlawed), recreational drugs. The troops also use chemicals that will mask the presence of illegal drugs in their systems. The military is cracking down on that as well.

For several years 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. Four years ago, the services began issuing orders banning the use of any stuff that gets you high, whether it's legal or not. Not everyone paid attention. The fifteen soon-to-be ex-sailors on the Washington, were nailed because they were actively distributing a legal drug that had roughly the same effect as marijuana. The navy does not want sailors working on the ship while under the influence of grass, or any legal substitutes.

Because of these trends, the random urine tests no longer work as well as they used to. Over the last few years, an increasing number of test defeating products have appeared on the market. The navy recently responded by prohibiting 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 hair for about 90 days, but it is more time consuming and expensive to test hair.

A Marine Corps judge recently ruled that anyone caught using any substance that causes intoxication, will result in punishment. This can range from sniffing glue (a legal substance) to the many organic substances and designer drugs on the market, that are not yet illegal, and may never be. The fear is that widespread use of these substances could lead to death or injury. Troops frequently handle dangerous equipment, or are responsible for maintaining weapons and vehicles (like helicopters or jets) which are very vulnerable to errors by the maintainers.

But sometimes troops are allowed to use drugs to fight fatigue. For over a century, the solution has been amphetamines ("speed"). However, this drug can impair judgment, making the user more aggressive, for example. In the last decade, kinder and gentler medications have become available. With some of these, tests showed that user performance was degraded 15-30 percent, versus 60-100 percent for those who took nothing at all after 24 hours of being awake. While these new drugs did a pretty good job, the current dextroamphetamine was still a bit better. So amphetamines remain competitive.

Wakefulness can be a potent weapon, especially for commandos, or troops engaged in prolonged combat (like the Battle of Fallujah in 2004). Without these wakefulness drugs, you would have to either pull troops out of action so they could rest, or leave them in and risk having them make fatal mistakes. Either way, you have a problem, because there are never enough troops to get the job done. But with the wakefulness medications, you can solve the problem, for a few days, anyway. Prolonged use of these drugs is not healthy. But neither is being drowsy during combat.

Islamic terrorists and the Taliban are, in theory, anti-drug, but they tolerate the use of narcotics among their fighters, as this often makes it possible for young, untrained gunmen to make audacious attacks. Drug tests on the bodies often reveals the presence of mood enhancing drugs, often large doses of methamphetamine (enough to make you fearless, not just more alert.)

 


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