The Daily Mail has broken the story (HERE) that apparently the Army will allow cocaine users to stay in the military if they fail a drug test in their basic training. This has been accompanied by lots of outraged quotes from retired senior officers about how things have gone to pot. Is this really the case though, or is the Daily Mail possibly exaggerating for effect? Rereading the notes cited in the paper, a more simple explanation emerges.
The UK armed forces rightly have a zero tolerance policy towards the use of any illegal drugs for serving personnel. Anyone found to have failed a Compulsory Drugs Test (CDT) will be discharged very quickly afterwards, with no sympathy from their peers. A tiny, tiny number may in exceptional circumstances be given a second chance, but this will be a mistake that impacts on their career prospects for years to come.
There is no change to the policy that anyone outside of Part 1 training will be subjected to CDT and quickly dismissed if they fail the test. What has seemingly slightly changed is the ‘grey area’ of Part 1 training in the Army. It is perhaps inevitable that a Service that needs to recruit people of a young age, who are often highly impressionable and have friends who may not always be angels. To pretend that every recruit arrives at basic training pure and innocent is touching and naive.
The purpose of the new policy is to spot during the initial drugs test taken in basic training those people who may have made a silly mistake between entering the recruitment process, where the battery of tests and medicals done will doubtless spot drug use, and entering training – a gap which can often take some time to process.
Any habitual users would have been weeded out before reaching the stage of an offer, but there is always the potential that a young wannabe soldier has a leaving party with friends where drugs are passed around, or they just get curious. It is a reality that recreational drugs are in common use in some parts of society, pretending otherwise won’t make the problem go away. Traces of drugs can stay in the system for up to 14 weeks after use, even if the high has long gone.
If the new recruit fails the test, then previously the system would have discharged them immediately. The new policy provides an element of ‘wiggle room’ for those worth keeping who may have made an honest mistake or error of judgement. It allows the right people to be kept, but its wording implies that those with issues can be discharged as usual. Those who are kept will be held back to an earlier phase of training and subjected to repeated drugs testing, with any second failure resulting in an immediate discharge.
This is a sensible moderated approach to take. It provides sufficient flexibility to keep the genuinely good recruits who made a very stupid mistake. Phase 1 training is a period when people are transitioning lives, and they have yet to fully adapt to the way in which the military totally dominates and takes over your life and the values you lead it by.
It seems likely that the individuals who fail will spend at least 14 weeks further in part one training, in order to be certain that they’ve not taken anything else. Frankly, given the part one environment, the potential for them to have the time or space to take drugs is unlikely.
The punishment for failing is also higher than you might imagine. At the outset of your career you will be tagged as someone who has failed a drugs test, and your passing out will be delayed. Not only will this make your immediate experience unpleasant, but trying to explain to friends and family why you are being held back will also potentially be uncomfortable as well. Never underestimate the power of social groups rejecting people in this sort of circumstance.
While the Mail may want you to think that the Army is full of drug users, the reality is very different. A tiny number of recruits will be given one opportunity to correct a foolish mistake. There will be no second chance. The Army provides hope, opportunity, training and a means of social advancement to many who join it. Often they come from difficult or challenging backgrounds and the Army is a means to escape this and start afresh. To discharge someone for a single mistake in Part 1, made before they even joined means writing someone off who could possibly make something of their life.
The Armed Forces face a real challenge in the 21st century of getting recruits in who meet exacting physical and medical standards. During WW1 over 1 million males were denied the ability to serve on medical grounds, even though the Army was desperately short of manpower. More prosaically Humphrey only ended up in Whitehall because he failed the medical after passing the AIB for regular entry. Ironically those standards were revised later, and he ended up a Reservist anyway.
20 years ago you could be discharged for being gay. Yet today the military is a leading employer for gay rights. Times change, societal values change and the military has to adapt to ensure it can recruit from the pool of people it draws on. In 20 years time, if cannabis is legalised, then how will the military adapt to reflect this?
There is emphatically no place for drug users in the modern military. The new policy is not exactly allowing cocaine addicts the chance to shoot up in barracks (presumably with sleeves rolled up?). But there is enough common sense to allow the small number who make a very foolish mistake at the very start of their career, before they enter or pass out of basic training, the possibility of a second chance in exceptional circumstances.