LONDON – Hundreds of British army personnel are being dismissed every year after testing positive for drugs in compulsory tests, with the number of sackings rising steadily, The Guardian revealed. MoD data released under Freedom of Information laws shows that about 660 soldiers and reservists – nearly a battalion – were discharged last year after testing positive for illicit substances, mostly cocaine, in the mandatory tests (CDTs).
The sackings followed approximately 630 firings after positive CDTs in 2018 and 580 in 2017. Up until mid-July this year, there were 270 discharges after the mandatory tests revealed drug use, the FoI showed. It was unclear if lockdown affected illicit drug supplies within the army but it is understood the disruption led to a significant reduction in testing.
Before the pandemic, there were around 80,000 random tests annually; with some service people tested multiple times per year and others not at all. There are currently 79,620 people in the regular army and 29,980 reserves. Cocaine, which leaves the body within a couple of days, is overwhelmingly the most detected drug, followed by cannabis and ecstasy. Ketamine, steroids and benzodiazepines have also been detected.
There were 680 positive CDTs in 2017, 820 in 2018, 770 in 2019, and 220 this year, as class A drug use among young adults throughout the UK rises, driven by powder cocaine. The army announced it does not tolerate drug use and that there can be a delay to discharges but it is understood there is a belief within military top brass that British society has a drug problem and the army, like any other organization, reflects societal issues.
However, a former soldier claimed many soldiers take drugs to manage the particular stresses of life in the army, including attempts to manage PTSD, while others simply enjoyed getting high.
“It was mostly weekend cocaine use but people used it on duty too,” he said, adding, “There was no way you could go a week without a drink or drugs, the stress is so intense. But the worst drug in the forces is alcohol. It’s forced on us.”
Experts have long suggested that people subject to compulsory tests are more likely to take drugs that leave their system relatively quickly, thus making cocaine – which is found in urine for only two to three days after use – more attractive than cannabis, for instance, which remains traceable for weeks.
The army only tests soldiers for drugs through their urine. It is not legally permitted to test blood or hair despite the latter containing traces of drug use from months before. It is known that some troops purposefully take drugs to fail CDTs, which were introduced in the 1990s, in order to be discharged from the army – since they would otherwise have to continue service for a year after quitting.
The data also suggested methamphetamine (better known as crystal meth), a popular battlefield drug historically, was enjoying a renaissance after around 10 people tested positive this year, the first time it had been detected during 2017-2020. Niamh Eastwood, from the drug information charity Release, stated,
“Drug use was commonplace in all walks of life, including the military and even politics, and that it was time for a less punitive approach, which would end criminal sanctions for possession.”
“These figures are of no surprise, drug use is ubiquitous in society whether in the military, medicine, journalism or even amongst those vying for leadership of the Conservative party,” she continued.
“The high level of discharges for this activity demonstrates how our current drug laws destroy lives. Simply ingesting one substance can destroy your career, whilst other substances, like alcohol, are proactively encouraged as part of the culture,” she noted.
In November 2018, former Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson introduced a zero-tolerance approach for drug use, saying it was the only way to ensure excellence was maintained as he highlighted that the purchase of illicit substances fuelled organized crime.
However, his successor, Ben Wallace, announced he recognized some people are “young and irresponsible” and that senior officers should be able to decide whether soldiers who have been found to use drugs deserve to be sacked, despite internal army concerns that drug use may “erode operational effectiveness”, according to a leaked memo.
An army spokesperson stated, “The army does not tolerate drug abuse within its ranks as it is incompatible with military service and operational effectiveness. Army personnel caught taking drugs can expect to be discharged.”
Drug abuse has been linked to an increased risk of possible war crimes by troops under the influence of narcotics. This is especially true for methamphetamine, which is often described as the main culprit for mass war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht during WW2 or the US military during the Vietnam War. However, the connection between recent reports of SAS war crimes in Afghanistan and the use of narcotics is still unclear.