Drugs and the Navy

At the same time that Americans are being asked to spend $120 billion on a massive plan for naval rearmament they are being led to wonder whether the new equipment will arrive in hands unsteady with drugs. This week television contributed to the concern with a report on laboratory tests of enlisted personnel showing marijuana or hashish use by almost half of the more than 2,000 tested.

Navy spokesmen stress that these tests were made late last year, and that they were taken as confirming the necessity of already existing efforts to strengthen the fight against drug abuse. In the midst of current public and congressional concern, however, the spokesmen acknowledge that a new drug program is in the making, with details to be announced later.

The sooner the better, friends of the Navy would say. For the nation needs assurance that no means are being overlooked to prevent drugs from undermining defense readiness. It is not simply a naval problem, of course. Last month the assistant secretary of defense for drug and alcohol abuse was not speaking only of the Navy when he said in congressional testimony that alcohol and other drug abuse was a "serious problem" that affects the readiness of the armed forces. But a Defense Department study did find that Navy and Marine enlisted men were the heaviest drug users. So the Navy has the opportunity to set an example in controlling the problem.

One reason for attention at this time is the autopsy finding of illicit drugs in the bodies of six of those killed on the deck of the carrier Nimitz when a plane crashed on it last May. The Navy says there was no such evidence in the air crew of the plane, and Navy Secretary Lehman insists that any past use of drugs by anyone involved had nothing to do with the crash.

Many people in civilian life, to be sure, use alcohol or illicit drugs on their off hours without being found incapable of doing their jobs. The armed forces draw on the same generation of young people among whom many civilian users appear. But these are not excuses for requiring standards of conduct to ensure full readiness of naval and other military personnel.

Secretary Lehman properly expressed his "extreme concern" even while denying the influence of drugs in the Nimitz episode. The chief of naval operations has lent his weight to addressing the problem. The problem itself has to be kept in perspective in a Navy most of whose personnel, like most young people, are not drug abusers. But obviously if the Navy is going to make a case for its $120 billion buildup it has to make the case that it has a strong and enlightened perso nnel program to go with it.

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