Unfortunately, there is a long history of alcohol and drug abuse within the military. Exposure to combat and frequent deployments can put service members at an increased risk of abusing substances such as drugs and alcohol.
Beginning in the 1970s, individual military branches, and the Department of Defense (DoD) as a whole, developed policies to address substance abuse among service members, DoD civilians, and veterans. These policies are in place to protect military readiness, as well as the health of those on active duty and DoD civilians.
In addition to the negative health impacts substance abuse can cause, it can also impact performance and overall military readiness. The DoD’s current substance abuse policy aims to prevent the following among those on active duty:
- Alcohol abuse, such as binge drinking
- Illicit drug use and abuse of prescription drugs
- Tobacco use
- Use of other substances which may be legal in some states but can still have some harmful effects, such as marijuana
What is the Department of Defense’s policy on legal and illegal substances?
Substance abuse has negative impacts on military readiness, prevents service members from maintaining high performance standards, and can lead to disciplinary action. For these reasons, the DoD has developed a policy to provide guidance for service members and commanders on what substances are prohibited, the punishments for abusing substances, and where those with problems with substance abuse can go to receive treatment and additional resources.
The goals of the DoD policy on legal and illegal substances include:
- Prevent and eliminate substance abuse within the Department of Defense
- Return DoD personnel to their full duty, consistent with mission requirements, after treatment for substance use disorder (SUD)
- Ensure regular medical screening for those at risk for substance use
- Encourage employees who have substance use problems to seek treatment as needed, and reduce the stigma associated with seeking treatment
- Prohibit DoD personnel from possessing, selling, dispensing or using illicit or prescription drugs in a manner other than their legally intended purpose
- Prohibit DoD personnel from selling, possessing, or using drug paraphernalia, and preventing the possession and sale of drug paraphernalia at DoD resale outlets such as commissaries and exchanges
- Ensure that DoD personnel will report any individuals involved in using excessive amounts of intoxicants, or the illegal use, sale, or possession of any controlled substances or dangerous drugs
- Ensure that evidence-based SUD services are available to those who need them within the DoD, and to provide a comprehensive treatment benefit to all eligible TRICARE beneficiaries
What are considered “legal” substances?
There are many types of substances that can be misused or abused; each has dangerous implications for service members’ health. While many of these harmful substances are illegal, legal substances can also be dangerous if they are taken incorrectly or used in large quantities, and their use is prohibited or limited by the DoD. These legal substances include:
- Prescription drugs: misuse of these drugs is a major concern for the DoD. Misuse of prescription drugs can include taking too much of a prescribed drug, or taking a drug that has been prescribed to someone else. Misuse can lead to seizures and cardiovascular system failure. Prescription drug use doubled among members of the military between 2002 and 2005, and nearly tripled between 2005 and 2008
- Alcohol: Misuse of alcohol can lead to increased risk of injury, high blood pressure, heart and liver disease, depression, impaired memory, and other harmful conditions
- Nicotine: use can lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure, chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Nicotine use can also cause certain cancers, including: mouth, bladder, stomach, kidney, or pancreatic
What are considered “illegal” substances?
Illegal substances include:
- Cannabinoids, including marijuana: use can cause impaired memory and learning, slower reaction time, anxiety and panic attacks, possible decline in mental health, and addiction
- MDMA: use can lead to impaired memory, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and addiction
- Flunitrazepam: use can cause memory loss, confusion, impaired coordination, and addiction
- GHB: use can lead to memory loss, drowsiness, loss of coordination, seizures, and unconsciousness
- Dissociative drugs, such as ketamine, PCP, and dextromethorphan: these drugs can cause impaired motor function, memory loss, feeling separate from one’s body and environment, and anxiety. Ketamine use can also lead to death
- LSD: use can cause altered states of feeling and perception, hallucinations, and Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder
- Stimulants, such as cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamines: use can cause increased blood pressure and heart rate, cardiac complications, stroke, seizures, and anxiety
- Opioids, such as heroin: use can cause impaired coordination, impaired breathing, and endocarditis
- Bath salts: these drugs increase levels of chemicals in the brain such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, resulting in increased alertness or feelings of euphoria. However, bath salts can also lead to agitation, panic attacks, hallucinations, and combative behavior, with paranoia and delusions often lasting for days. These drugs can also have physical effects, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, kidney failure, seizures, and death. In 2012, the Synthetic Drug Use Prevention Act was passed, which banned the possession, distribution, or use of the chemicals used to make drugs like bath salts. The DoD also has policies in place to prevent the use of bath salts. The Army’s Prohibited Substances policy states: “Army personnel are prohibited from using, possessing, manufacturing, selling, distributing, importing into or exporting from the United States any controlled substance” such as bath salts. Soldiers in violation of this policy may face punishment.
- Steroids: use can cause blood clots, high blood pressure, prostate cancer, and hostility and aggression
- Inhalants: use can lead to slurred speech, loss of coordination, depression, memory loss, nervous system and cardiovascular system damage, and sudden death
- Salvia divinorum: use can cause hallucinations, changes in mood and vision, feelings of detachment and decreased ability to engage with one’s surroundings. Long-term effects are not known
The DoD policy on legal and illegal substances is in place to ensure that service members stay healthy, are able to perform their duties, and do not get dishonorably discharged due to drug use.
Heather Maxey works at a non-profit that addresses military ineligibility. She is an Army spouse, and met her husband while working as a Health Educator at Fort Bragg.
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