Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: Should the army abandon their zero-tolerance policy on substance use?

Written by Anke Snoek

Macquarie University

In the UK around 500 soldiers each year get fired because they fail drug-testing. The substances they use are mainly recreational drugs like cannabis, XTC, and cocaine. Some call this a waste of resources, since new soldiers have to be recruited and trained, and call for a revision of the zero tolerance policy on substance use in the army.

This policy stems from the Vietnam war. During the First and Second World War, it was almost considered cruel to deny soldiers alcohol. The use of alcohol was seen as a necessary coping mechanism for soldiers facing the horrors of the battlefield. The public opinion on substance use by soldiers changed radically during the Vietnam War. Influenced by the anti-war movement, the newspapers then were dominated by stories of how stoned soldiers fired at their own people, and how the Vietnamese sold opioids to the soldiers to make them less capable of doing their jobs. Although Robins (1974) provided evidence that the soldiers used the opioids in a relatively safe way, and that they were enhancing rather than impairing the soldiers’ capacities, the public opinion on unregulated drug use in the army was irrevocably changed.

Part of this paradigm change can be related to the fact that our expectations of soldiers have changed. Where in earlier wars the sheer quantity of the soldiers was most important to outnumber the enemy, in modern warfare soldiers became highly trained professionals who are not supposed to fill the trenches, but to make advanced technical and moral judgements under stressful conditions.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.