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Legalized Marijuana Presents Recruiting Dilemma for US Military

April 23, 2015

An Army officer at the local recruiting officer is talking to an 18-year-old, a physically fit high school graduate with good grades and a clean record, who is eager to enlist. But he also uses marijuana. If the recruiting office is in Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is legal but still against federal law, the Army loses a promising recruit.

A team of first-year master of public policy students tackled this policy problem as part of their spring consulting project for their required course, PPS 804. Their client was another Sanford student, Col. David Shafer of the U.S. Army National Guard, who is a Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellow.

Shafer was also researching the marijuana policy problem as part of his yearlong fellowship. Shafer is the personnel officer for the West Virginia Army National Guard, overseeing human resource management of more than 4,100 soldiers.

While only Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational use of marijuana, 19 have legalized medical marijuana, and the trend is continuing. Five states, including California, will vote on legalization as early as 2016. Marijuana use is also rising among adolescents, the military’s prime applicant pool.

“The military faces a window of vulnerability with fewer eligible recruits because of this policy mismatch, if there is a need to ramp up quickly,” Shafer said.

The MPP team of Thomas Gwilliam, Elizabeth Hirsch, Yixin Jio and Irene Lawrence was put together by Visiting Associate Professor of the Practice Tim Nichols. Gwilliam, an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard who has also dealt with personnel management, had a keen interest in the topic.

The MPP team compared marijuana use policies at other government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of State, the CIA, FBI, DEA and at the Los Angeles Police Department. All the agencies had a zero tolerance policy for after joining, but a variety of policies about prior use. Most required drug testing as part of the application process.

“It is such a fast-moving issue, there was really very little research available,” said Hirsch.

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  • Left to right: Thomas Gwilliam, Elizabeth Hirsch, Yixin Jiao, David Shafer, Irene Lawarence

    Left to right: Thomas Gwilliam, Elizabeth Hirsch, Yixin Jiao, David Shafer, Irene Lawrence

The military and the DEA excuse only experimental use before joining.

The FBI and the CIA both have “sunset” provisions, which use a time threshold to determine acceptable marijuana use. Even so, the policy of no use in the past three years has caused problems for the FBI’s ability to hire hackers to fight cybercrime. Federal law also restricts agencies from providing security clearances for people who have used controlled substances, including marijuana.

The State Department uses a more flexible, case-by-case policy, which is not feasible for the military because it is time and resource intensive. The LAPD has a “no problematic use” policy, which allows recruiting people whose prior use did not result in any adverse effects, such as failing a drug test, losing a job or being expelled from school, or being diagnosed with a clinical dependency on marijuana.

“We recommended a ‘no problematic use’ policy,” said Hirsch. This approach allows flexibility without requiring additional resources and still filters out candidates with dependency issues.

“I had completed most of my research before the MPP team started, so I was interested in having an analysis of the problem from a different angle,” said Shafer. “I was pleased that the team arrived at a similar conclusion to mine.” said Shafer

In his final presentation, Shafer recommended guidelines of no use for six months prior to enlistment and no dependency issues, but no change to post-enlistment policy and no waivers for other drugs.

One issue the MPP team raised that Shafer hadn’t considered was how legalization would impact equal representation in enrollment from across the nation and population.

He compared the marijuana policy situation with the evolution to the inclusion of gay members in the military. American society changed in its acceptance and legal treatment of LGBT people.

“The military has to change to keep up,” he said.