Cadet 1st Class Stephen Pouncey faces a court-martial today that could land him in the brig for 55 years.
The Air Force Academy senior is accused of dealing ecstasy and LSD, and using them, in addition to cocaine and methamphetamines.
The severity of the punishment Cadet Pouncey faces illustrates one of the tools the United States military has used to fight illicit drug use in its ranks - bringing it to record lows. And the drop has been dramatic: In 2000, only 2.6 percent of servicemen reported illegal drug use in the past month. That compares with more than 27 percent back in 1980.
At the same time, Pouncey's dealing and dallying with ecstasy - increasingly the drug of choice for young Americans - indicates that, despite the military's best efforts, it's not immune from the ills of the society it tries to so hard to reflect. Ecstasy use is on the rise.
According to the Air Force Surgeon General's office, five times as many airmen tested positive for ecstasy in 2000, compared with 1999. But the actual number who tested positive in 2000 remains remarkably small: only 61 airmen. There's a similar pattern across the services. According to the Department of Defense, out of 2.3 million drug tests given in 2000, there were 1,070 positive hits for ecstasy. That is more than 10 times the number in 1998, but it still accounts for less than half of 1 percent of the total force.
"If anything, what is surprising - given the level at which the military reflects society - is that we're not detecting more ecstasy use in the military," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland at College Park. "That suggests the military's policies are being very effective."
The policy is called "zero tolerance," and the court martial that gets under way today at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., reflects its success, but also, some critics charge, the steep cost that has come with it.
Three months ago, in one of the regular, random drug tests that have become a hallmark of military life since zero tolerance went into effect in 1982, Pouncey produced a positive result. That prompted the academy to begin an investigation.
In the end, 35 cadets were implicated. Twelve have been exonerated. Nine have been disciplined for knowing about the drug use and not reporting it. That leaves Pouncey and 13 others still under investigation. Of those, five are reportedly being investigated for ecstasy use. One of the 13 has resigned. "It's a problem if even one person tests positive," says Capt. John Elolf, an academy spokesman. "We hold our cadets to a higher standard, and 99 percent of those cadets meet that standard."
In accordance with Department of Defense and Air Force rules, the academy tests 65 percent of its 4,100 cadets. But as a result of the Pouncey scandal, and the increase in the use of ecstasy, officials have decided to increase testing.
"It used to be that we didn't do a whole lot of drug testing on weekends," says Captain Elolf, "but now we're going to start."
One reason is that ecstasy runs through a person's system in as little as three days - making it possible for someone to use the drug on Friday night and test negative by Monday afternoon.
Some experts contend that's the kind of chemical challenge the military will face next as illicit drugs become more sophisticated.
"There's a whole raft of designer drugs that are becoming popular with young people ... and my sense is that a lot of them are not sensitive to laboratory assay - they're hard to detect," says Segal. "There's a technological question of how are we going to be able to determine what is being used."
But in addition to the drug testing, the military has also strongly enforced the military code that requires all illegal activity be reported. A former Air Force pilot says that's called the "turn-in factor." "Yes, there is random drug testing, but the most significant deterrent is the turn-in factor," says the former pilot. "Your lives are so intertwined - you eat together, you sleep together, you work together, you play together - every aspect of your life is an open book, so you just can't run the risk."
While the pilot applauds the drop in drug use, she says the turn-in factor creates an atmosphere of distrust. And she says the severity of the punishment has also ruined some lives.
A friend of hers experimented with marijuana as a cadet at the Air Force Academy. After she had already graduated, become a flight instructor, and stopped using drugs, someone turned her in for her earlier experimentation.
When investigators quizzed her, she admitted what she'd done. She was sentenced to almost five years in prison.
"The military is very results- and mission-oriented," says the former pilot. "Have they gone overboard? My friend was a great pilot and a wonderful human being, and her life was ruined because she went to prison - to me, she's a casualty of this successful operation.... But as far as the military is concerned, their main objective is a clean military, and they've pretty much accomplished that."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society