British Army’s New Drug Rules Will Punish Traumatised Soldiers

Source: Wikimedia

The British Army has a new “zero tolerance” drugs policy which is set to needlessly punish soldiers, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder, and those using when off-duty.

UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced in November that servicepeople who fail a mandated random drug tests (MDT) will be expelled from the forces and will be barred from returning under any circumstances.

Prior to this shift, servicepeople who failed their MDTs could return following fresh examinations. Indeed, this policy proved vital to the force in order to fill skilled technical roles and flesh out its dwindling ranks. However, the Army has discarded its previous tolerance in favour of these new draconian protocols which came into force last month.

Secretary Williamson called the use of drugs ‘incompatible’ with military service, justifying the policy as an attempt ensure “high standards are maintained” within the force.

The new policy is markedly indiscriminate in its approach, making no allowances for the circumstances surrounding the failed MDT. There are several serious issues in such a blanket approach, which smacks of the moral-panic based drug policies of the 20th century.

Firstly, these MDTs can be mandated on or off duty, meaning that servicepeople could be expelled from their full-time employment for using recreational drugs when it could not possibly impact their performance. Secondly, even if personnel were to take their MDTs whilst on duty, many drugs (including cannabis) remain traceable in an individual’s system for long periods of time. This means that, long after a drug’s effects have worn off, individuals could still be permanently barred from service due to a positive test.

Perhaps the biggest hypocrisy in the new policy is that, like so many before it, it attempts to treat a symptom rather than a problem. If we accept that rising drug use among army servicepeople is a problem, then it is perhaps poignant to ask why this is the case, not just punish those who partake.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the military’s worst-kept secrets. Skyrocketing numbers of current and ex-military personnel are being diagnosed with the disorder and many remain either undiagnosed or fall into other diagnostic categories. The interaction between drug use and mental health crises is well established, and “self-medication” is likely a reason for many servicepeople using illicit substances in the first place.

This is not to say that army personnel are exclusively using drugs because of the trauma suffered during service. Recreational, non-problematic use likely makes up most of the drug use in the forces, just as it does in the general population. This type of use is likely to be casual, intermittent and have little if any impact on soldiers’ ability to perform their duties. The catch-all nature of the new approach simply assumes that any drug use is the same as negative drug use, reinforcing negative stereotypes, penalising people without cause and stigmatising people for simply seeking pleasure in substances.

However, those who will be hit hardest by this policy are those who are self-medicating for a mental health problem caused by their experiences in the theatre of war. If military service and associated trauma is contributing to personnel’s drug use, then ultimately the Army authority is responsible for it. Punishing people for using substances that help them deal with the mental wounds inflicted by war is barbaric. Removing an individual suffering from a mental health crisis from their friends, familiar surroundings and employment for simply seeking a medicine not yet endorsed by their society, is wrong. This policy targets those who already suffer the most in the military and marginalises them more, magnifying their suffering incalculably.  

Consider what “permanent exclusion” from the military means. These people endure gruelling training, give up relationships, stability, and innumerable opportunities, and accept the risk of their own death in the pursuit of their duty. Permanent exclusion represents the rejection of everything they have and are willing to sacrifice, for as little as the consumption of a plant or powder. This new policy contemptuously disregards the myriad reasons that an individual might use drugs, and with a sweeping stroke, it alienates those in need of help from everything they know. The Ministry of Defence is flexing its muscles and demanding one more sacrifice from its personnel. When is “one more” too much?