The Army Zero Tolerance Drug Policy

There is no room for drug users in the United States military…

And rightfully so.

While there has been a more liberal approach to such things as marijuana in the civilian world, the Department of Defense and the Army holds their ground that there will be no drug usage and abuse in our military system.

Any member caught with drugs of any kind or having them in their system, will be separated from the Army with a dishonorable discharge and could also be charged and convicted in a court martial hearing.

Now I must say that there is also supposed to be strong policies on alcohol consumption, but primarily during working hours.

When military personnel are off duty, it does seem like alcohol is widely accepted.

Now I have my opinion on that matter, but I am going to attempt to keep this article completely unbiased.

I am going to delve into the Army Zero Tolerance Drug Policy, so you can completely understand the Army’s position in regards to drugs.

Is drug abuse a problem in the Army?

Drug abuse is much lower in the Army than it is in the civilian world.

But studies are finding that alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs are on the rise in the military.

Much of that is attributed to the heavy stress loads.

The prescription issue arises because of combat related injuries, and it is often overlooked because the service member has a prescription for the drug.

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How the Army Zero Tolerance Drug Policy works

The Army Zero Tolerance Drug Policy all rolls down to each Company Commander.

Essentially, the Commander is the Judge, Jury and Executioner.

So, it is the responsibility of Company Commanders to have a strong policy written that states what will happen if any of their soldiers are found to be in violation.

The Army Substance Abuse Program is all governed by AR 600-85.

The primary method to keep a check on personnel is through random drug testing.

If a service member is found to have a “dirty” drug test, they are to be separated from the Army and in most cases, they will be charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

Some soldiers may assume that they can use the newer designer drugs that have become prevalent, but I will tell you immediately that a thought process like that is dangerous.

The Army is staying proactive and keeping up with any, and all new drugs that are hitting the market.

And, just because some of these may be legal in the civilian world, the Army has an outlook of NO!

No matter the drug, Army personnel are a factor in life or death situations of many other soldiers.

They operate expensive, and dangerous equipment.

There is no room for drugs in that environment at all.

The general statement by the Army reads:

Alcohol and drug abuse by soldiers and civilian corps members can seriously damage their physical and mental health, jeopardize their safety and the safety of those around them and can lead to criminal and administrative disciplinary actions. Alcohol and drug abuse is detrimental to a unit’s operational readiness and command climate and is inconsistent with Army values and the warrior ethos.

To deter drug abuse, the idea is to eliminate all thoughts and perceptions that drug abuse will not be detected.

The Army Substance Abuse program mandates that leaders conduct frequent urinalysis tests that are random, unannounced and observed.

The same will be true of inspections of work and lodging areas.

Leaders will also be trained in signs and symptoms of drug abuse.

The Army Substance Abuse Program

Sometimes the title of this program can lead to confusion.

Some individuals have the impression that it is designed to help people who are addicted to drugs.

Truth be told, the program is not in place to help any Army personnel who are on drugs, it is designed to help the Army weed those people out and send them packing.

The Army Substance Abuse Program has a clear cut set of objectives:

  • Increase fitness and unit readiness

  • Provide services that will educate, prevent, deter and rehabilitate

  • Implement drug and alcohol strategies to adhere to Army policies

  • Restore soldiers who were substance impaired but still have potential

  • Educate leaders on ways to implement activities that are alcohol and drug free

  • Achieve maximum productivity and reduce absenteeism of civilian corps members by the reduction of drug and alcohol abuse

The Army Substance Abuse Program has 2 primary tenets – Prevention and Treatment


  • Educate soldiers and beneficiaries on the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse

  • Deter by using random drug testing

  • Identifying and detecting potential or actual substance abusers through self, apprehension, command, investigation, testing or medical ID

  • Methods that soldiers and beneficiaries can access Army Substance Abuse Program services

  • Analyze and compile data and statistics in regards to substance abuse and high risk profiles


  • Interviews and evaluations to determine if an individual needs to be referred for treatment

  • Education on the adverse effects and consequences of drug or alcohol abuse

  • Intervening with the goal of returning the soldier to full duty or to determine if not rehabilitative and should be abandoned

Who is under the Army Substance Abuse Program?

Naturally, soldiers and their beneficiaries are under this program, but there are others who will come under this program too:

  • OCONUS (outside the U.S.) civilian personnel who are eligible for military medical services

  • Department of Defense civilian employees

  • Members of other service branches who are under the jurisdiction of an Army commander

  • Foreign employees who have an agreement for military medical services

  • Retired military personnel

Catching the problem before it comes into the Army

Recruiters are required to ask pertinent questions of applicants before they can enlist in the United States Army.

  1. Have you ever used drugs?

  2. Have you been charged with or convicted of a drug related offense?

  3. Have you ever been psychologically or physically dependent on drugs or alcohol?

  4. Have you ever trafficked or sold illegal drugs for profit?

If a person answers yes to #3 or #4, they may as well consider the odds of being accepted in the Army as nil.

On the other 2 questions, the Army will determine if it was just a short phase or could be a problem in the future.

Essentially, if the person used marijuana more than 15 times, they probably will not be accepted, and if they used hard drugs, the same will probably be true.

And the person should expect regular drug tests, because the Army is zoning in on possible problem cases.

The history behind the Army Zero Tolerance Drug Policy

When we look back on Vietnam, drugs were common among soldiers.

Both marijuana and heroin became an epidemic as soldiers were trying to escape from the pressure of war and death.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon ordered a military urinalysis program to identify soldiers returning who needed rehabilitation.

In 1972, the Department of Defense instituted an amnesty program and 16,000+ military members came forward and admitted a drug problem.

In 1973, a report was issued stating that 42% of military personnel in Vietnam in 1971 had used some type of opioid with 21% being physically dependent at some point.

In 1974, the Department of Defense instituted random drug testing, but just to put members in rehabilitate which did not deter drug use.

In 1980, the Department of Defense performed a health survey that found 27 ½ % of service members had used an illegal drug within the past 30 days.

In May of 1981 it all came to a breaking point with a terrible accident aboard the USS Nimitz; 14 killed, 48 injured and a cost of $150,000,000. Drugs were a huge factor in the accident.

In December 1981, a memorandum was issued by the Deputy Secretary of Defense that initiated punishments of courts martial and separation for drug use. Drugs being tested for were:

  • marijuana

  • cocaine

  • heroin

  • amphetamines

  • barbituates

  • methqualone

  • and PCP

In December 1983, it was discovered the drug testing system was completely incompetent.

Over 10,000 military personnel who were discharged for drug use were awarded large amounts of money and some were given their positions back.

Since that point, testing is done through highly controlled environments. Mistakes are very low and service members can request one retake if a test is found positive.

Final Thoughts

When we look at the numbers, drug abuse in the Army is at an all time low, but alcohol abuse does seem to be at an all time high.

It does seem that drugs are not tolerated, but alcohol is not only tolerated, it is expected, just not while on duty.

I must say that I am glad the Army has gotten control over the drug problem, but I do believe they need to review the alcohol issue too.

What are your thoughts?

You can leave your comments and questions below.

Thank you.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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