TACOMA — As Washington prepares to open its first retail marijuana stores in the next few months, tens of thousands of military service members have been warned not to shop in any of them.
They face criminal charges and career-ending discipline if caught with a substance still banned by the federal government.
“Our soldiers understand what’s legal,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the senior Army officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said in an interview last week. “From our perspective, marijuana or any type of illegal drug is something that’s not tolerated.”
The prohibition isn’t limited to active-duty service members. Shortly after state voters passed an initiative legalizing marijuana in 2012, Washington’s National Guard commander sought to clear up any misunderstandings by citizen soldiers who might have questions about the law.
“Use of marijuana is illegal under federal law and Department of Defense policy,” Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty wrote in a December 2012 memo. “Recent passage of Initiative 502 legalizing marijuana under Washington state law does not change this policy. All soldiers and airmen are hereby ordered not to possess or use marijuana at any time.”
Pot isn’t allowed on a military base, even if it’s for medicinal purposes. As far as the military is concerned, there’s no such thing as medical marijuana.
The Army is looking as hard as ever to root out troops using drugs within its ranks, but fewer than 2 percent at Lewis-McChord have tested positive in recent years.
Last year, Lewis-McChord carried out 86,956 urinalysis tests to enforce federal law, according to numbers requested by The News Tribune of Tacoma. That’s about two tests per soldier per year. A total of 1,123 tested positive for drug use, of which 396 were for using marijuana.
The number of tests administered in 2013 was down from the previous two years. In 2011, when the base south of Tacoma was nearly full with all of its brigades home from missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, it administered 121,354 tests, according to statistics provided by I Corps. A total of 1,933 tested positive for drug use, of which 608 were for using marijuana.
On Fridays, when soldiers gather for weekend briefings, commanders remind them that using pot and getting caught is a quick way to get booted from the Army while risking valuable benefits.
It’s such an obvious career risk that soldiers in unguarded moments talk about troops who test positive as if they’re looking for a way out of the military.
“That’s not the way to get out of the Army. You’re going to get caught,” one senior noncommissioned officer told soldiers at a Friday “safety briefing” last summer.
“You wind up on a fast track out of the Army, but you get scuffed up along the way,” he said.
The tests are random and apply to anyone.
Even an Army attorney who was assigned to administer Lewis-McChord courts-martial was pulled aside for a urinalysis during the most-watched trial of 2013, the prosecution of Kandahar massacre culprit Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
A positive result automatically triggers a disciplinary process that could lead to a military service member being kicked out of the armed forces. If they’re pushed out with a bad conduct discharge, they usually also lose access to medical benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The new state laws also does not change standards for new recruits.
Past marijuana use does not disqualify candidates for enlistment in any of the service branches. However, enlistees are given two urinalysis tests after they sign up, and failing either of them would result in the military withdrawing its offer.
“There’s that line. Once they cross it, and they decide to join federal service, it’s gone,” said Lt. Kwang Woong Kim of the Air Force Recruiting Service.
The Army Recruiting Command does not track enlistees who admit past drug use, a spokesman said.
Last year, 2,039 people from Washington, Alaska and parts of Oregon and Idaho joined the Army. Of those, nine enlistees subsequently tested positive for marijuana use and were disqualified from enlisting.
“Statistically it is insignificant, but we are monitoring for any upward trends that impact our ability to recruit the best and brightest to serve in our Army,” said Seattle Recruiting Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Ron Henry.
Henry said he acknowledged past marijuana use when he joined the Army in 1991.
“We understand young people sometimes make poor decisions, and they learn from their mistakes,” he said.