The Army came up nearly 11,000 short of its yearly recruiting goals for active-duty and Reserve troops in 2018, but that doesn’t mean the service will get hip to Colorado’s legalized weed.
Around the globe, armed forces, most notably Canada’s, have softened their stance on marijuana as legalization movements grow in strength. But the U.S. Army says it will stick with its prohibition, despite marijuana being essentially legal in 33 of the 50 states. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, which still defines it as a controlled substance.
“We are going to stand our ground,” said Brig. Gen. Jason Walrath, the No. 2 general at Army Recruiting Command.
Walrath traveled through Colorado last week in a bid to boost recruiting here. Recruiters could use the help: For the fiscal year that ended Oct. 1, the Army was short on active-duty enlistments by 6,528 and Reserve enlistments by 4,273. Those shortfalls came even as the Army boosted enlistment bonuses, offering troops as much as $40,000 for signing up.
It’s not unusual for recruiting efforts to falter when the economy is strong. In the mid-2000s, as corporate payrolls soared along with Wall Street, the Army had difficulty filling its ranks.
Faced with a desperate need for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago, the Army took a different path: widespread use of waivers to allow troops into the Army who would not otherwise qualify, including hundreds who admitted frequent marijuana use.
Now, though, Army leaders are against waivers, including those for pot smokers.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley reinforced the stance last month.
“The Army hasn’t reduced standards or changed standards,” he said.
A national security consultant with the Virginia-based Telemus Group, retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix said the military has good reason to be wary of legalized weed.
“We in the military frown on people who have taken mind-altering drugs,” he said.
In Ottawa, though, Canada’s military bosses have charted a different course. The Defense Ministry in September issued new rules allowing Canadian troops to smoke marijuana, while setting guidelines, including no use within 24 hours of firing weapons or piloting planes. Canada made it legal for adults to buy, use and grow recreational marijuana this year.
“Members are required to conduct themselves in a professional manner and are expected to make responsible choices in respect of their use of cannabis for recreational or medical purposes,” the new Canadian regulation says.
The impact of legalized weed in Colorado on military discipline has been minimal.
A 2015 study of pot use at Fort Carson showed that the number of soldiers testing positive for the drug dropped after the state’s voters approved recreational marijuana sales.
In the year before legalization, 725 soldiers failed drug tests for marijuana use. After legalization, 422 tested positive for marijuana, a sharp drop that leaders credited to frequent admonitions to soldiers that pot was forbidden.
Dakota Wood, a defense researcher for the Heritage Foundation think tank, said banning pot smokers from serving in the Army is no different from setting age and weight limits or screening recruits for intelligence.
Military regulations are intended to create units that are effective in combat rather than turning the military into a reflection of the society it defends, he said.
“You are by definition excluding certain portions of the public,” Wood said.
Marijuana is just one of the factors that narrows the number of young Americans who are eligible to serve.
Physical and mental fitness, substance abuse, criminal records and educational shortcomings are among the factors that make 71 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 unfit to wear Army uniforms.
State-sponsored surveys in Colorado show that one high school student in five reported using marijuana within a 30-day period.
Lt. Col. Ken Lutz, a Las Vegas-based officer who runs the Army’s Western recruiting arm for medical professionals and chaplains, said he hasn’t seen pot-related problems.
“Honestly, it hasn’t impacted us whatsoever,” Lutz said. “But the people we recruit are all going to be officers. They have been career-focused their whole lives.”
Instead of weakening its stance on pot, the Army hopes to beef up its efforts to recruit soldiers who are eligible to serve.
Walrath explained that the Army’s recruiting woes stem to some degree from quick-changing policies, that saw the service downsizing in the Obama years before the Trump administration called for Army growth.
Now, Army efforts to increase enlistments are bearing first fruit, and the service is expected to soon roll out a new marketing campaign to tout the virtues of service, including generous college benefits.
While the Army doesn’t want pot users in its ranks, the service is open to welcoming some former marijuana smokers.
“There are different ways we approach that,” said Lt. Col. Debbie Case, who leads the Army’s recruiting efforts in Colorado, noting those who have long ago sworn off marijuana could be eligible to enlist.
The growing acceptance of marijuana in American society could eventually drive the Army to change its views on pot.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr said the military in recent years has moved to embrace previously forbidden things for recruits, most notably piercings and tattoos.
Studies of how Canada’s military fares with marijuana in the ranks could help change minds at the Pentagon, he said.
“I think they are willing to relook at things as long as the evidence is there,” he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx