Military winning drug war within its ranks

United States military personnel are increasingly saying no to illegal drugs. Preliminary results from the fourth in a series of Department of Defense studies conducted since 1980 show a dramatic plunge in the use of illegal substances by soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

In the latest survey, only 5.3 percent of those questioned said they had used illegal drugs in the previous 30 days. That's down from 27 percent in 1980, when the first study was conducted.

The sharp drop is being heralded as a military victory in the war on drugs.

``As evidenced by the preliminary results of the survey, the services have done a superb job in working toward eliminating illicit drug use from the military and establishing healthy behaviors,'' says Dr. William Meyers, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

The 1988 figures represent the responses of 17,213 military personnel from a survey population of 26,526. The data still need to be adjusted for nonrespondents, but the Defense Department says preliminary results in 1985 were indicative of general patterns. The final results will be ready in December.

A 1980 message from the top brass saying that drug usage ``is not conducive to carrying out military responsibilities'' started a reform movement in the military, says department spokeswoman Susan Hansen.

The rates of illegal-drug usage for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps in 1980 were 29, 33, 14, and 37 percent respectively. Military leaders announced that these numbers ``were totally unacceptable,'' Ms. Hansen says.

To combat the problem, the Defense Department launched a three-pronged attack, consisting of drug-abuse education, rehabilitation for users, and urine testing.

In the current survey, 10 percent of military personnel surveyed reported nonmedical drug use in the previous 12 months, compared to 13 percent in 1985. Three percent of the 1988 respondents reported using marijuana in the previous 30 days, and 7 percent confessed to marijuana use during the previous 12 months. Comparable figures for marijuana use in 1985 were 7 percent and 19 percent.

``We beefed up testing in 1982,'' Hansen says. ``Also, we got a test that allowed detection of marijuana.'' Hansen says that the test, combined with a military court finding permitting the armed services ``to take disciplinary measures and discharge individuals,'' reduced the rates of illicit drug use.

At the time the testing program was bolstered, Frank Carlucci, then the deputy secretary of defense, issued a stern warning:

``The [Department of Defense] policy continues to provide help for individuals who need and seek help voluntarily. For those who abuse drugs and do not respond to treatment and rehabilitation, however, appropriate action will be taken.''

Drug testing and rehabilitation programs had been around since 1971, when it was discovered that Vietnam veterans were returning home addicted to heroin. The Veterans Administration currently operates 51 drug treatment programs nationwide. The Defense Department spent $99.1 million on drug abuse programs in fiscal year 1986.

But the military's effort is not without critics.

``If they were serious, they would be dealing with substance abuse, not just illegal substance abuse,'' says Allan Adler, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. ``There is no rational basis for distinguishing testing for illegal over legal drugs.''

Mr. Adler says that alcohol abuse, with its long record of traffic deaths, emotional and physical violence, and broken family life, is ``more of a danger to society'' than is drug abuse.

``It's a hypocritical distinction that tolerates use of alcohol,'' Adler says. ``We need to deemphasize criminal-justice concerns and emphasize social concerns.''

The military survey did, in fact, cover alcohol use. The results indicate that 9 percent of the US military population can be classified as heavy drinkers, down from 12 percent in 1985. Heavy drinking is defined as five or more drinks per occasion at least once a week.

Lost productivity because of alcohol use during the prior 12 months was reported by 23 percent of the military respondents. This figure was 27 percent in 1985. Loss of productivity due to drug use was reported by just 2 percent of the active-duty population.

``This is a tougher nut to crack because it is a legal substance,'' Hansen says about alcohol abuse. ``We don't have punitive measures available with alcohol abuse.''

The Veterans Administration treated 110,000 vets for alcoholism in its treatment facilities during 1987.

The Defense Department survey also examined cigarettes. Fifty-seven percent of military personnel did not smoke cigarettes during the last 30 days, up from 54 percent in 1985. Twenty-three percent smoked about a pack a day or more, down from 31 percent in 1985.

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