All branches of the military have a zero-tolerance policy on drug use. While drug abuse among active-duty military is uncommon, it does happen.
Less than 1% of active-duty personnel report using illicit drugs, which is significantly lower than civilian rates. Misuse of prescription medication is more common, with roughly one in seven admitting to past-year use.
Rates of Illicit Drug Use
But, these statistics are self-reported. Considering some servicemembers will deny drug use for fear of losing their job, the actual rate of illicit drug use in the military is likely higher than 1%.
What happens if you get caught with drugs in the military?
Drug use and possession are considered serious misconduct in the U.S. Military. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which governs all branches, forbids illicit drug use across the board.
The most common disciplinary actions for drug use in the military are:
- Non-judicial punishment (Article 15)
- Court-martial – can include Criminal charges and judicial punishment
- Administrative Separation
- Discharge for Misconduct
Non-Judicial Punishment (Article 15)
Known as NJP or Article 15, Non-Judicial punishment is the lowest level punishment you can receive in the military. It does not lead to criminal charges, but it will appear on your record.
Non-judicial punishments are dictated by your commanding officer. Common NJP include pay reductions, extra duties or a reduction in rank.
Getting an Article 15 does not automatically disqualify you from honorable discharge. However, any past misconduct will factor into what type of discharge you get.
If you are presented with an Article 15, you have two options:
- Sign the paper, accept whatever punishment you get from your commanding officer.
- Demand a trial by court-martial.
A court-martial is a judicial proceeding that is similar to a criminal trial. You appear before a military judge or a panel that hears your case and determines the outcome. A court-martial can lead to criminal charges and judicial punishment outside of the military justice system in civilian court.
Depending on their severity, drug charges bypass non-judicial punishment and go directly to court-martial. If you’re found guilty, you may face administrative separation or be discharged for misconduct.
A majority of court-martial cases lead to conviction, so it’s common for soldiers to accept non-judicial punishment rather than going to trial and risking removal from their position.
Administrative Separation is like getting fired from your job. You aren’t criminally prosecuted and you are still eligible for an honorable discharge, but your commanding officer is removing you from your role. This can happen after an Article 15 as part of non-judicial punishment, or as the result of a court-martial. Administrative separation is the most common form of punishment for abusing drugs in the military.
Discharge for Misconduct
Getting discharged for misconduct is the most severe punishment that you can get for drug-related charges in the military. Discharge is like getting fired from your job AND having a stamp on your permanent record. You are barred from ever serving in the military and you could lose your benefits through the VA.
It is possible that more than one punishment will be applied. For example, you may be given non-judicial punishment as well as administrative separation.
What happens if you fail a military drug test?
The U.S. Military has a zero-tolerance policy regarding illicit drug use. Anyone who fails a drug test could face dishonorable discharge as well as criminal prosecution.
Commanding officers are required to refer anyone suspected of substance abuse to their branch’s substance abuse program for an assessment. The military offers substance abuse treatment for active-duty members, covered by TRICARE. But, this does not prevent discharge or prosecution.
Many service members get care outside of the military healthcare system. Specialized military treatment centers, like JourneyPure, contract with bases to provide specialized care for both active-duty military and veterans.
How do you fight a positive drug test in the military?
Unlike in the civilian court of law, the military can prosecute you just for failing a drug test. While false positives in drug testing are rare, they do occur.
Fighting a false positive drug screen in the military is a difficult process, but it is possible. Military lawyers can help defend yourself if you are certain that your test was a false positive. Military defense lawyers know to look for details that others don’t, including:
- Mishandling of samples
- Lab or machine errors
- Other medications that you are taking that may have caused the false positive
With this in mind, many soldiers have to weigh their options before fighting a false positive.
How often does the military drug test?
Drug testing in the military is done upon entrance and then continues at random for the duration of your military career. Soldiers can be given up to three random tests per year.
Additionally, a commanding officer can order a drug test if they have reason to suspect illicit drug use. This is standard procedure if the commanding officer notices behavior changes that could put others or the U.S. Military’s reputation at risk.
All military branches take drug testing very seriously to ensure their soldiers are fit for duty and do not put others in danger.
Military drug tests are conducted for one of 3 reasons:
- Random – Urinalysis testing up to 3 times per year
- Probable-Cause – If your commander suspects you are using drugs
- Medical – Before boot camp, as part of your health assessment
The frequency of random tests depends on your rank, your commander, and which branch of the military you are serving in.
Do they drug test you at basic training?
Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy recruits are urine tested as soon as they arrive at basic training or boot camp. They also get tested along with their physical examination at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), before basic training.
Instead of testing at boot camp, the Army tests before boot camp during your examination at MEPS and then randomly throughout your duty.
Can you lose VA benefits for drugs?
Yes, it is possible to lose your VA benefits if you get caught with drugs while you’re in the military. The benefits that you qualify for depend on what type of discharge you received.
|Eligible for VA benefits|
|General Discharge||Yes (except some education benefits)|
|Other than Honorable (OTH) Discharge||No|
Can you join the military with a drug charge?
Yes, depending on the severity of the charge. Each branch of the military has its own rules, and some drug charges are more serious than others.
Drug charges that are viewed as less serious by the military include those:
- Received as a juvenile
- Related to marijuana
- Involving possession of small quantities of drugs
More serious charges will disqualify you from service. Charges that are almost always seen as disqualifying include those:
- Related to harder drugs
- Involving trafficking or selling
- Tied to a violent incident
Anyone with a criminal charge will need to apply for a moral conduct waiver before they are considered for enlistment.
What drugs can you do in the military?
None, except for alcohol. The military forbids all illicit drugs, as well as the misuse of prescription medications.
Drinking is permitted for active-duty soldiers under certain circumstances, like during time off or at military functions. Technically speaking, alcohol is a drug, and it is used (and sometimes encouraged) in all military branches.
Military drug tests typically look for the following substances:
- Synthetic cannabinoids
Not all of these substances are tested for every time a drug test is administered, though.
If you’re concerned that your drug use could jeopardize your military career, don’t wait until you get caught to take action. Addiction doesn’t stay a secret for very long, and eventually, someone in your unit going to find out. It’s better to be honest with your commanding officers and address the issue up front rather than wait for someone to find out and risk discharge, separation or worse.
JourneyPure.com doctors follow rigorous sourcing guidelines and cite only trustworthy sources of information, including peer-reviewed journals, count records, academic organizations, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, government reports and their own expertise with decades in the fields and their own personal recovery.
(1983, December 6). 10 U.S. Code § 912a – Art. 112a. Wrongful use, possession, etc., of controlled substances. Cornell Law School; Cornell University. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/10/912a
Bray, R. M., Marsden, M. E., & Peterson, M. R. (1991). Standardized Comparisons of the Use of Alcohol, Drugs, and
Cigarettes Among Military Personnel and Civilians. American Journal of Public Health, 81(7), 865–869. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1405176/pdf/amjph00207-0043.pdf
NIDA. 2019, October 23. Substance Use and Military Life DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-military-life on 2021, April 5
Sharbafchi MR, Heydari M. Management of Substance Use Disorder in Military Services: A Comprehensive Approach. Adv Biomed Res. 2017;6:122. Published 2017 Sep 21. doi:10.4103/abr.abr_283_16
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