OTTAWA — Marijuana is the illegal drug of choice in the Canadian Forces, according to the first random tests of the entire military.
Almost one in 20 Forces members – 4.7 per cent – “recently” used illicit drugs, says the newly released study based on random urine samples. And the vast majority were using some form of cannabis, with cocaine, morphine and codeine far behind.
The survey results are based on 1,327 mandatory urine samples taken randomly, without prior notice, among all three services and across the country. Refusal to provide a urine sample could result in disciplinary action.
Previous illicit-drug surveys in the Canadian Forces had concentrated on smaller populations in one of the branches, or among key military professionals such as submariners or divers.
But to establish a broad baseline, the Canadian Forces carried out its widest survey yet, between Feb. 2 and April 6, 2009. Mandatory urine samples were demanded “at unpredictable times and without prior notice.”
However, the samples were “blind” in that the identity of the individual tested was not recorded, and therefore no sanctions could be applied to anyone testing positive.
The anonymous samples were sent to an independent lab hired by the military, and an analysis of the results was completed in January. A copy of the analysis was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
Marijuana can be detected in the urine weeks after use, depending on how much is ingested and how frequently it has been taken. The tests showed that about four per cent of those tested had traces of cannabis in their samples.
In Canada, some surveys have found up to 12 per cent of the general population acknowledging use of illicit drugs, with marijuana by far the most popular.
The military has previously estimated usage in its ranks at about four per cent, and mandatory tests imposed in 2006 on soldiers headed to Afghanistan have helped hold levels in check. The Canadian Forces have a zero-tolerance policy for illicit drugs.
The new survey results found that military drug users generally are males age 39 years or younger; are in lower ranks; have not completed a university or college degree; and are in common-law relationships or have never been married.
“The BDT (blind drug testing) results indicate that for CF full-time members, gender, age, rank and highest level of education are strong predictors of illicit drug use,” says the report.
The authors call for more in-depth study of the findings, and more detailed breakdowns of the demographics of illegal drug use.
“The CF are a microcosm of the Canadian population at large, and as such, it is reasonable to expect that a small percentage of CF members will, at one time or another use illegal drugs,” spokeswoman Carole Brown said Wednesday.
“It is too early to comment on possible policy changes, as the research results of the pan-CF drug testing have not yet been finalized, and recommendations are still being developed.”
The study identified Canadian Forces Base Borden in Ontario as a hot spot for street-drug use, with about nine per cent of individuals testing positive.
The base is the largest training facility in the Canadian Forces, with an average of 15,000 personnel passing through each year. Brown said military recruiters attempt to screen applicants for drug use, and will deem them “temporarily unsuitable” if substance abuse is recent or continuing.
The navy bases at Esquimalt, B.C., and Halifax also showed somewhat higher-than-average drug use in the study, at 5.5 per cent each. The large military facility at St-Jean, Que., had a 5.6 per cent rate.
Previous blind tests that were restricted the army and the navy found levels of illicit drug use at five per cent and 6.5 per cent respectively.
Brown said while the Canadian Forces does not tolerate illicit drug use, it also regards substance abuse as a health issue to be handled through education, treatment and rehabilitation and not solely through disciplinary measures.
By Dean Beeby