Enlisting stoners

The U.S. Army doesn’t like to recruit cannabis users—but the argument against them is losing ground

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As a branch of the federal government, the U.S. Army frowns on all things marijuana. For decades, if someone wanted to serve this country, they had to have a completely cannabis-free history and cannabis-clean record. Recruits who’d used in the past or failed a single drug test were immediately disqualified from service. Even today, if a hopeful recruit consecutively fails two urine tests they are automatically and permanently disqualified from enlisting—not just in the Army, but in any branch of the military.

It’s the product of stigma and enduring misconceptions born of America’s War on Drugs that still surround the plant. However, as cannabis legalization has swept the nation, the U.S. Army has had to soften that position somewhat. And a recent analysis by RAND Corporation, done on behalf of the Army itself, suggests it could be softened even more.

That’s because, as RAND’s analysis indicates, there is no statistically significant relationship between someone’s history of use and their performance as a soldier—at least, none in most cases. 

“Typically—no pun intended—[the Army] weeds out people who have marijuana in their background,” says Beth Asch, lead author on the RAND Corporation’s analysis. “Historically, many years ago, if you said ‘I’ve smoked marijuana,’ then you couldn’t get in.”

That’s no longer exactly the case today. Now, recruits who fail a urine test can apply for a “waiver”—a document that allows the Army to reconsider recruits who would otherwise be turned away (for having a criminal history, behavioral health issues, weight issues, failing a marijuana test, etc.). If approved for the waiver, and if they pass their second urine test, the recruit is eligible for enlistment. 

“So you have this situation where people are maybe using marijuana legally in their state. And yet if they want to enlist, they need to potentially get a waiver in order to join the military. The big issue, of course, is how do they perform in the military once they get the waiver?” Asch says. “Are these just regular, high quality people and they’re going to perform just fine? We simply didn’t know.”

Those were the questions the Army brought to the RAND Corporation. And because of her background as a labor economist, with a career focus on military personnel issues, Asch was an easy choice to lead the study.

For its analysis, RAND focused on reviewing all the waivers the Army had approved and the subsequent performance history of the soldiers who received them. They then compared those individuals’ performance against all other Army recruits to gauge how their “drug use” or other issues affected their capability as a recruit. 

Asch says she didn’t have a hypothesis going into the analysis; she had an open mind about whatever it was that they were going to discover. 

Still, she was surprised by the results. 

“We found [no] evidence of higher attrition by people who came in with a history of marijuana,” Asch says. That means the recruits who’d been issued a waiver for marijuana use performed no worse than those who hadn’t.

The first of RAND’s key findings reads: “Contrary to expectations, waivered recruits and recruits with a documented history of marijuana or behavioral health conditions are not uniformly riskier across all dimensions. In some cases, they are historically more likely to perform better.”

And: “The legalization of marijuana has not resulted in worse recruit outcomes, and there is no strong evidence that changes in marijuana legislation have substantially changed recruit outcomes.”

“I wasn’t expecting that,” says Asch. 

They also found that “accession” (i.e. rank promotion) isn’t affected much by cannabis use, either.

“So those were some of the good things,” says Asch. “But it was kind of a mixed bag.”

For instance, she says, if a recruit didn’t finish their first term in the Army, it was more likely that it was a recruit with a history of marijuana, alcohol, and other drug use. 

However, all of the observed adverse outcomes were mitigated by three important factors, according to Asch.

“We definitely found that it’s possible to reduce the likelihood of these adverse effects if people come in with higher aptitude, a high school diploma, [and/or] who are older,” she says. 

In light of these findings, the Army is now being forced to reflect on their policies concerning cannabis and incoming recruits. It may still be a long time before they start including joints in our boys’ rations, but it could be a significant step towards greater cannabis leniency from a very serious federal entity.

Asch wasn’t comfortable commenting on what this research means in the context of federal legalization, but she was comfortable concluding, “If [a recruit] was just somebody who failed a pee test, the [adverse] effects were minor . . . There are definitely ways in which these individuals perform just as well as people who don’t come in with that history [of cannabis use].”

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