The Air Force is granting more than three times as many enlistment waivers to recruits who test positive for marijuana than it anticipated when it first launched an effort to give people who have consumed cannabis another shot to join the service.
The military branch announced a policy change last year, authorizing it to grant waivers to recruits who test positive for THC metabolites during their initial drug screening and giving them 90 days before they’re retested. Previously, Air Force candidates who tested positive would be automatically barred from joining.
In the first year since the waivers became available, the branch said it issued 165, Military.com first reported. That’s more than triple the 50 waivers it predicted it would grant annually. The policy covers both the Air Force and the Space Force.
Within just three months, from September 30 to December 31 of last year, it had already granted the second chance to 43 applicants.
The Air Force missed its recruitment goal for the first time since 1999, and Gen. Christopher Amrhein, the branch’s recruitment service commander, said last month that the situation could have been much worse if they hadn’t instituted the marijuana waiver policy.
“Let’s make no mistake, drug usage has absolutely no place in our Air and Space Forces,” Amrhein said. “But allowing a second test in the recruiting process is the right thing to do. For FY23, this policy change allowed us to bring in approximately 165 additional high-quality airmen.”
That number is expected to rise as more states “as more states adopt more leniency toward cannabis and THC derivative,” Air Force Recruiting Service spokeswoman Chrissy Cuttita told Military.com.
Not all recruits are eligible for the waivers. Only those who score high enough on their qualification tests, don’t have convictions on their records and otherwise meet enlistment standards qualify under the pilot program, which lasts until September 2024.
At that point, the Air Force will decide whether to make the policy permanent. If they do, it would align them with other divisions of the military that have similarly revised cannabis policies like the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
For the Air Force in particular, this waiver program represents a notable development, as the branch instituted a policy in 2019 barring service members from using even non-intoxicating CBD, even if its derived from hemp and is therefore federally legal under the 2018 Farm Bill.
A Massachusetts base of the Air Force released a notice in 2021 stating that service members can’t even bring hemp-infused products like shampoos, lotions and lip balms to the base. “Even if it’s for your pet, it’s still illegal,” the notice said.
Officials with the division also said in 2018 that it wants its members to be extra careful around “grandma’s miracle sticky buns” that might contain marijuana.
Over the past several years, particularly since hemp was legalized, multiple military branches have notified their rank-and-file about their specific rules around cannabis.
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In February, the Department of Defense (DOD) said that marijuana’s active ingredient delta-9 THC is the most common substance that appears on positive drug tests for active duty military service members. The second most common is delta-8 THC, which is found in a growing number of hemp-derived products that are being made available, including in states where marijuana itself remains illegal.
DOD has paid particularly close attention to cannabis policy amid the state-level legalization movement.
Last year, DOD put out a notice expressing concern that even using CBD-infused products like hand sanitizer or hemp granola could inadvertently compromise “military readiness,” and so they’re off limits.
One of the first attempts by the U.S. military to communicate its cannabis ban came in the form of a fake press conference in 2019, where officials took scripted questions that touched on hypotheticals like the eating cannabis-infused burritos and washing cats with CBD shampoos. That was staged around the time that DOD codified its rules around the non-intoxicating cannabinoid.
The Navy, for its part, issued an initial notice in 2018 informing ranks that they’re barred from using CBD and hemp products no matter their legality. Then in 2020 it released an update explaining why it enacted the rule change.
The Naval War College has gone so far as to warn Sailors and Marines about new hemp products on the market, issuing a notice earlier last year that says members can drink a new Pepsi-owned Rockstar energy drink that contains hemp seed oil.
However, that military branch does permit waivers for recruits who test positive for THC if there are no other outstanding issues with the candidate. The Marine Corps also permits temporary waivers for THC-positive applicants.
The Coast Guard said that sailors can’t use marijuana or visit state-legal dispensaries.
A factor that may have influenced these policy updates is that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released guidance to federal agency drug program coordinators in 2019 that outlined concerns about THC turning up in CBD products and causing failed drug tests. The agency issued an updated warning in 2020 after several more states voted to legalize marijuana.
A government-funded report from the RAND Corporation that was released in 2021 looked into U.S. Army recruits and concluded that past cannabis use has relatively little impact on overall performance.
Meanwhile, the House approved an amendment to a DOD spending bill last week that would provide $15 million in funding for the department to carry out “Psychedelic Medical Clinical Trials.” It also passed another measure that lays the parameters for the trials, which would involve active duty service members with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries (TBI). The Defense Health Agency would need to send a report to Congress with its findings.
Photo courtesy of Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.