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Guest Post: Should the army abandon their zero-tolerance policy on substance use?

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Written by Anke Snoek

Macquarie University

In the UK around 500 soldiers each year get fired because they fail drug-testing. The substances they use are mainly recreational drugs like cannabis, XTC, and cocaine. Some call this a waste of resources, since new soldiers have to be recruited and trained, and call for a revision of the zero tolerance policy on substance use in the army.

This policy stems from the Vietnam war. During the First and Second World War, it was almost considered cruel to deny soldiers alcohol. The use of alcohol was seen as a necessary coping mechanism for soldiers facing the horrors of the battlefield. The public opinion on substance use by soldiers changed radically during the Vietnam War. Influenced by the anti-war movement, the newspapers then were dominated by stories of how stoned soldiers fired at their own people, and how the Vietnamese sold opioids to the soldiers to make them less capable of doing their jobs. Although Robins (1974) provided evidence that the soldiers used the opioids in a relatively safe way, and that they were enhancing rather than impairing the soldiers’ capacities, the public opinion on unregulated drug use in the army was irrevocably changed.

Part of this paradigm change can be related to the fact that our expectations of soldiers have changed. Where in earlier wars the sheer quantity of the soldiers was most important to outnumber the enemy, in modern warfare soldiers became highly trained professionals who are not supposed to fill the trenches, but to make advanced technical and moral judgements under stressful conditions. In that regard, the use of prescribed enhancing substances has taken off. A recent article heralds a new way to make soldiers fearless; also research is being done regarding drugs that could prevent PTSD among soldiers by blunting their emotional response to combat situations. Allenby and Sarewitz (2011) remark that the most enhanced people in our society today are soldiers. Soldiers can simply not afford not to use prescribed enhancing substances, given the stressful situations they work in, and the responsibilities they have for the lives they are protecting, including their own.

However, drug use for enhancement is still surrounded by ambivalence. This is well reflected in the policies around the use of Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine) among jet pilots to help them stay alert during long missions. Formally, the use of Dexedrine was voluntary, and American pilots are asked to sign a consent form before they get access to the enhancement drug. However, the form also notes that pilots can be grounded if they decline, which could have serious implications for their careers. As a consequence, the consumption of Dexedrine by military pilots is by any standard compulsory rather than voluntary. The institutionalisation of drug use goes hand in hand with another trend: the suppression of mechanisms of self-regulation by drug users. Whereas the administering of drugs by the military is associated with safe enhancement of soldiers to make them physically and cognitively stronger, when it is the individual soldier who takes the initiative to use a substance, it is increasingly associated with addictive, drug seeking behaviour, and intoxication, which maps onto the myth of the addictive army. An interesting case that reached the newspapers took place in September 2013, when seventeen British soldiers, including two sergeant majors, were charged with the use of the performance-enhancing substance Ephedrine. Paradoxically, Ephedrine is closely related to the amphetamine the military uses to enhance its soldiers. Although the culprits were described as ‘gym rats’, rather than drug addicts, they were all discharged from the military.

Today, the trend is towards increased institutional experimentation and against self-regulated use, which reflects today’s public opinion which is less tolerant towards intoxication and doping, while there is increasing pressure to perform at levels that cannot be sustained without enhancing substances (a trend visible throughout society and not confined to the military alone). We tend to have negative associations with self-regulated drug use but embrace institutionalized medicines and enhancement.

However, our negative association with self-regulated substance use makes us ignorant of an important aspect that determines the successfulness of a medicine or an enhancement substance: the personal experience of the user and his involvement in determining the objective and context of substance use. The same substance has different effects on different people. Zinberg’s work shows that there is good evidence to suggest that enhancement will be more effective when not compulsory. This would imply that the military should take an interest in being more tolerant regarding self-experimenting with substances, provided that it can take place under medical supervision and the results can be used to monitor the effects of substances.

In order for this change to happen, we should let go of the knee-jerk moral condemnation of experimenting with certain types of drug, and our blind trust in prescribed medicine or enhancement substances. We should acknowledge that there is only a thin line between a beneficial medicine, enhancement substance, drug and the poisoning effects of medicine, the impairing effects of enhancements and the addictive effects of drugs.

It would go too far to state that the best judge about the effect of a substance is each individual person, but controlled self-medicating or self-enhancement is likely to be the most promising route to dealing with the multilayered consequences of its use.  That is what we seem to expect from our soldiers nowadays, that they are mentally and physically in control of themselves. This could be reached paradoxically by their self-experimenting with substances under medical supervision, despite the fact that this is commonly associated with morally condemnable addictive behaviour.

So instead of firing them, the army should have asked: why do soldiers use cannabis, XTC, and cocaine? What are their reasons, what do they get out of it? Is it recreational use, self-medication, or self-enhancement? Do they control their use or not?

If you are interested in the question of enhancement of soldiers, a new book is just published: Super Soldiers, edited by Jai Galliott and Mianna Lotz.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. First there is the unknown effects of these drugs: In a few years people may develop complications from substances which have been sanctioned by the Government.
    Second the source. The illegal source of these drugs leaves the person who is purchasing them open to blackmail etc which then has vetting issues.
    Third do you trust someone with your life who you know is taking drugs that the rest of the population is banned from taking?

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