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U.S. Navy Expands Marijuana Waiver Authority To Address Recruiting Shortfalls



Amid the U.S. military’s ongoing recruiting crisis, the Navy is expanding authority to grant waivers to recruits who arrive at boot camp and initially test positive for marijuana, instead of simply sending them home.

“If they fail that test and own up—’Yes, I smoke marijuana ‘—we do an evaluation of the young person to make sure there’s not something else going on,” Rear Adm. James Waters told reporters this week. “But we trust that through the process of boot camp that we have an opportunity to bring them along with our culture.”

Waters, who directs the Navy’s military personnel plans and policy division, explained that the goal of the change is to be “reflective of where legislation is in society.”

“We recognize that many states have legalized marijuana,” he said, according to the outlet

As that publication notes, however, the policy shift is among a host of steps military officials across multiple branches have taken to address recruiting shortfalls in recent years across the armed forces. The changes have brought the current boot-camp dropout rate to about 10 percent, among the lowest in recent history.

If the Navy is going to meet its 2024 recruiting goal of bringing on 40,000 new sailors, Waters said, even losing 4,000 recruits during boot camp “is really, really unhelpful, and so we want to try to continue to work on that.”

The more lenient approach to failed drug tests is limited to initial screening for THC, Waters emphasized, noting that the policy does not apply to other drugs and adding: “We don’t do drugs in the military.”

The change comes shortly after a similar one was enacted at the Air Force, which reported late last year that it granted more than three times as many enlistment waivers to recruits who tested positive for THC as officials anticipated when they first expanded the waiver program in 2022.

The Air Force recently missed its annual recruitment goal for the first time since 1999, but Gen. Christopher Amrhein, the branch’s recruitment service commander, said last September that the situation could have been much worse if they hadn’t instituted the marijuana waiver policy.

In the first year since the waivers became available, the branch said it issued 165. That’s more than triple the 50 waivers it predicted it would grant annually. The policy covers both the Air Force and the Space Force.

For the Air Force in particular, this waiver program represents a notable development, as the branch instituted a policy in 2019 barring service members from using even non-intoxicating CBD, even if its derived from hemp and is therefore federally legal under the 2018 farm bill.

Over the past several years, particularly since hemp was legalized, multiple military branches have notified their rank-and-file about their specific rules around cannabis.

The Navy 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.

In 2022, the Naval War College warned sailors and marines about new hemp products on the market, issuing a notice earlier last year that said members may test positive for marijuana if they drank a Rockstar energy drink that contained hemp seed oil.

A Massachusetts base of the Air Force, meanwhile, released a notice in 2021 stating that service members can’t even bring hemp-infused products like shampoos, lotions and lip balms to the base. “Even if it’s for your pet, it’s still illegal,” the notice said.

Officials with the division also said in 2018 that it wants its members to be extra careful around “grandma’s miracle sticky buns” that might contain marijuana.

The Coast Guard has said sailors can’t use marijuana or visit state-legal dispensaries.

In February, the Department of Defense (DOD) said 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.

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.

On the opposite side of their military careers from the new recruits, military veterans have long been a driving force in the drug reform movement, in part because veterans have used the drug to treat mental and physical health issues and as an alternative to opioids.

Earlier this year, a study found that 6 in 10 military veterans support marijuana legalization generally, while an earlier survey found more than 72 percent support among veterans for Veterans Administration (VA) doctors being able to legally recommend marijuana.

In Congress, meanwhile, lawmakers are pushing to keep provisions in a large-scale federal spending bill that would allow VA doctors to issue medical marijuana recommendations to veterans living in legal states.

That reform would achieve the same policy outcome as a standalone bill that was refiled on the House side in March by Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chairs Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Brian Mast (R-FL).

The Veterans Equal Access Act has been introduced several times in recent years with bipartisan support—and moved through committee and floor approval a number of times—but has yet to be enacted. Blumenauer, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, has made the modest reform a priority even as he’s pushed for broader legalization.

In August, bipartisan congressional lawmakers expressed “deep concern” over a recently updated VA marijuana directive that continues to prohibit its doctors from making medical cannabis recommendations to veterans living in states where it’s legal.

They said the decision to maintain the “harmful policy” on cannabis recommendations is especially “alarming” in the context of VA’s latest clinical guidance on PTSD, which strongly recommends against using medical cannabis as a treatment option.

“Many veterans already report using cannabis for medical purposes as a substitute for prescription drugs and their side effects,” they said, adding that a recent survey of veterans who use cannabis found that they report improved quality of life and reduced use of certain prescription drugs, including opioids.

VA has updated its cannabis guidance before, adding language in its 2017 version that explicitly encouraged VA doctors to discuss veterans’ marijuana use, for example.

Last April, Senate Republicans separately blocked a procedural vote to advance a bill to the floor that would promote VA research into the therapeutic effects of marijuana for military veterans with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The medical cannabis recommendations amendment was one of relatively few drug policy reform measures to make it through the GOP-controlled House Rules Committee, which has consistently blocked such proposals from bipartisan members this session.

However, it did advance a Republican-led amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would require Department of Defense (DOD) funding of clinical trials exploring the therapeutic potential of certain psychedelics for active duty military service members. Following bicameral negotiations, the reform was ultimately included in the final deal that President Joe Biden signed into law late last year.

Congressman Demands Answers From DEA On Marijuana Rescheduling Review

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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