The Department of Defense (DOD) says that marijuana’s active ingredient delta-9 THC is the most common substance that appears on positive drug tests for active duty military service members. The second most common is delta-8 THC, which is found in a growing number of hemp-derived products that are being made available, including in states where marijuana itself remains illegal.
In a letter responding to a 2022 inquiry from Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and several colleagues, DOD explained last month what it’s doing to combat drug overdoses, promote harm reduction programs and destigmatize treatment, with a focus on address opioid misuse.
It also answered the senator’s question about the percentage of different types of substances that show up on randomized drug screenings for service members. As could be expected from general population use rates, cannabis is by far the most common reason for a positive drug test.
DOD said that in Fiscal Year 2021, delta-9 THC, the most well-known intoxicating cannabinoid, “was the most prevalent drug for active duty Service members, accounting for 73.4 percent of all unique drug positive active duty Service members” who underwent urinalysis.
That’s followed by delta-8 THC, which occurs naturally in trace amounts of the cannabis plant but is synthetically manufactured in these cases, DOD said. Delta-8 THC showed up in 42.7 percent of drug tests for service members.
“Most of the delta-8-THC positives also contain delta-9-THC,” DOD said in a footnote to the letter. “This is due to delta-9-THC contamination during the production process of delta-8-THC products.”
Cocaine was detected in 14.4 percent of drug tests, while fentanyl and its primary metabolite norfentanyl was identified in 2.5 percent of the screenings combined.
That disparity is partly explained by the fact that marijuana is the most commonly used federally illicit substance, and increasingly available in regulated markets as states enacted legalization, but it’s also the case that the inactive metabolite for THC can stay in a person’s system for weeks or months after use. In contrast, drugs like cocaine leave a person’s system within days.
In its response letter to Markey, DOD also described steps it has taken to promote education about the risks of substance misuse and the penalties for testing positive. The department said it has been working to implement harm reduction policies to support service members who are seeking treatment, and it touted campaigns on reducing stigma around addiction.
“The Department of Defense’s latest report underscores the urgency of this moment and our need to ensure access to quality care and treatment without stigma or shame,” Markey said in a press release last week. “I am thankful the Department has provided this critical data and has demonstrated a serious commitment to taking steps to prevent overdoses that will save lives.”
DOD has paid particularly close attention to cannabis policy amid the state-level legalization movement.
Last year, DOD put out a notice expressing concern that even using CBD-infused products like hand sanitizer or hemp granola could inadvertently compromise “military readiness,” and so they’re off limits.
One of the first attempts by the U.S. military to communicate its cannabis ban came in the form of a fake press conference in 2019, where officials took scripted questions that touched on hypotheticals like the eating cannabis-infused burritos and washing cats with CBD shampoos. That was staged around the time that DOD codified its rules around the non-intoxicating cannabinoid.
With respect to THC, some branches have adopted more lenient policies for would-be service members.
For example, the Air Force recently said that it is granting far more marijuana waivers to recruits than it expected after launching a pilot program that’s meant to give more flexibility to candidates.
The program launched last year, authorizing the branch to grant waivers to recruits who test positive for THC metabolites during their initial drug screening and giving them 90 days before they’re retested. Previously, Air Force candidates who tested positive would be automatically barred from joining.
The Navy, for its part, issued an initial notice in 2018 informing ranks that they’re barred from using CBD and hemp products no matter their legality. Then in 2020 it released an update explaining why it enacted the rule change.
The Naval War College has gone so far as to warn Sailors and Marines about new hemp products on the market, issuing a notice earlier last year that says members can drink a new Pepsi-owned Rockstar energy drink that contains hemp seed oil.
However, that military branch does permit waivers for recruits who test positive for THC if there are no other outstanding issues with the candidate. The Marine Corps also permits temporary waivers for THC-positive applicants.
The Coast Guard said that sailors can’t use marijuana or visit state-legal dispensaries.
A factor that may have influenced these policy updates is that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released guidance to federal agency drug program coordinators in 2019 that outlined concerns about THC turning up in CBD products and causing failed drug tests. The agency issued an updated warning in 2020 after several more states voted to legalize marijuana.
A government-funded report from the RAND Corporation that was released in 2021 looked into U.S. Army recruits and concluded that past cannabis use has relatively little impact on overall performance.
An Army spokesperson told Military Times that the army provides THC-positive recruits with a 90-day waiver before they can try to join the service again. A second positive test would render the recruit permanently disqualified.
Meanwhile, a joint explanatory statement attached to a large-scale congressional defense bill that was enacted late last year does contains a directive for the military to examine the potential of “plant-based therapies” like cannabis and certain psychedelics for service members.
A U.S. Senate committee approved a bipartisan bill last month to promote marijuana research for military veterans—becoming the first piece of standalone cannabis legislation ever to advance through a committee in the chamber.
Outside of the military, tens of thousands of commercial truckers tested positive for marijuana as part of federally mandated screenings, recent data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) shows. And a significant portion of those truckers have declined to return to work, contributing to a labor shortage.
A top Wells Fargo analyst said last year that there’s one main reason for rising costs and worker shortages in the transportation sector: federal marijuana criminalization and resulting drug testing mandates that persist even as more states enact legalization.
Last year, a coalition of more than two dozen congressional Democrats filed bill on promoting workplace investment to combat climate change, and they want to boost the workforce nationwide by protecting people in legal marijuana states from being penalized due to federal drug testing policies.
The nation’s largest union representing federal employees adopted a resolution last year in support of marijuana legalization and calling for an end to policies that penalize federal workers who use cannabis responsibly while they’re off the clock in states where it is legal.
Read DOD’s response letter on military drug testing policy and more below:
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.