The Department of Defense (DoD) implemented a substance abuse policy to prevent members of the Armed Forces from abusing substances such as drugs and alcohol, and to implement drug testing for those joining the military or on active duty or employed as DoD civilians.
Substance abuse is the hazardous or harmful use of psychoactive substances, such as illicit drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse can result in addiction, which is a chronic disease that can often relapse and cause compulsive substance use, regardless of the harmful consequences that may occur. Over time, the brain changes as a result of addiction and impacts a person’s self-control and their ability to resist the impulse to use substances. Both substance abuse and addiction to substances can have negative impacts on service members’ health as well as military readiness, so the DoD developed a policy to prevent substance use and provide treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs) for service members and DoD civilians.
What is the Department of Defense substance abuse policy?
The DoD requires those on active duty to participate in mandatory and random urinalysis testing, in an effort to identify those who are abusing substances, and to prevent service members from abusing drugs or alcohol. This policy includes:
- Random testing: names are chosen by a computer program, and those who are selected must undergo testing. If a service member’s commander suspects that they are using illegal drugs, that service member can also be ordered to take a test
- Military personnel who are asked to take a urine test must comply, or else face disciplinary action
- Any service member who tests positive for drug use is usually assessed by their branch’s substance abuse program to determine the extent of their problem with substance abuse. From there, treatment recommendations are provided as well as any disciplinary action
Who does the policy impact?
The DoD policy impacts active duty service members, as well as DoD civilian employees. Due to the frequent stress and unique culture of the military, it is possible for members of the armed forces to experience both additional risk factors for abusing drugs or alcohol, as well as protective factors related to substance use and abuse. Some of these factors include:
- Deployment: During deployment, some service members may begin smoking, may consume unhealthy amounts of alcohol, or use illegal drugs in order to cope with being in a stressful environment and being away from their home and loved ones.
- Stigma: A lack of confidentiality, zero-tolerance policies, and mandatory drug testing can add to the stigma of substance use or substance abuse and may discourage individuals from seeking treatment if they need it. One study of substance abuse in the military found that 50 percent of military personnel who participated in the study believed that seeking help for substance use or mental health issues would have a negative impact on their career. Service members may face being dishonorably discharged or criminally prosecuted if they test positive for drugs, which can further prevent those who need treatment for substance abuse to seek help.
- Binge drinking and other substance abuse: Among the military population, binge drinking rates are higher than the general population; illicit drug use is relatively low overall, but prescription drug misuse increased significantly between 2005 and 2008.
How does the DoD handle substance abuse among its employees?
While the DoD has a broad policy on substance abuse for service members and civilians, each branch has its own specific policy as well. Additionally, branches also offer substance abuse treatment and prevention programs that serve the unique needs of the members of each branch.
- Air Force: this document provides information on the Air Force’s policy regarding drug and alcohol abuse, as well as prescription drug misuse. It also includes guidance for identifying, treating, and managing personnel with SUDs.
- Army: this document describes the Army’s policy on alcohol and other drug abuse. It includes information on the Army Substance Abuse Program, such as who is eligible for the program, as well as the assigned responsibilities for implementing the program.
- Coast Guard: this document establishes the Coast Guard’s policy on drug and alcohol use for those on active duty, as well as discipline and performance standards for incidents involving drugs and alcohol. There is also a Substance Abuse and Treatment Manual that provides guidance for substance abuse treatment, prevention, and health promotion program planning for individual units.
- Marine Corps: this policy provides guidance on how to best utilize and execute the Marine Corps Substance Abuse Program for commanders, Marines, and other personnel involved in substance abuse treatment and prevention.
- Navy: the Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Control policy provides information on the prevention and control of drug and alcohol abuse for all Navy military personnel, and assigns responsibilities for implementing the Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Program.
What resources are available for service members or DoD civilians who have substance abuse issues or SUD?
In addition to protecting the health and safety of personnel, some of the goals of the DoD policy on substance abuse include:
- Eliminating the stigma of seeking treatment for substance abuse or other services related to problematic substance use, by limiting the amount of information that is provided to a command if command must be notified that a service member has an issue with substance abuse.
- Utilizing drug testing to prohibit the recruitment and hiring of military personnel or civilian employees into the DoD who are impaired by a substance use disorder.
- Analyze data to assess and review the prevalence of SUDs within the DoD, the number of personnel who are receiving treatment for SUDs, and trends in substance use.
- Develop training and train personnel on substance use policies for service members and others within DoD.
The DoD policy aims to ensure that service members remain healthy, fit for duty, and are not dishonorably discharged due to substance use. The policy also provides treatment resources for those suffering from SUDs, whether they are on active duty or DoD civilians.
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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