Editor’s note: This story was updated Sept. 1 at 10 a.m. to include a response from the Marine Corps.
Marijuana use may no longer disqualify prospective applicants from joining the Air Force or Space Force, due to a possible policy change under consideration at the Air Force Recruiting Service.
Recruiting boss Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas told Air Force Times in a recent interview that his organization is exploring the option of granting waivers to recruits who test positive for THC, marijuana’s high-inducing chemical, at Military Entrance Processing Stations.
“If applicants test positive for THC when they go to the MEPS, they’re permanently barred from entering the Air Force or the Space Force,” he said. “But as more states legalize cannabis, there is an increased prevalence of THC-positive applicants.”
If a THC-positive applicant is otherwise qualified to serve and the Air Force believes they will act in good faith and forgo cannabis once in the service, Thomas said those would be grounds for a waiver.
“We have to be realistic today,” Thomas said. “We need to exercise common sense.”
The service did not answer when that policy may be finalized or how many people have been turned away for positive THC tests.
The Pentagon prohibits troops from smoking, eating or otherwise using marijuana and marijuana-derived products, including those with CBD or THC. However, it’s up to the services to set their own policies on how to handle applicants who use those products before joining the military.
The Air Force isn’t the first branch to move toward giving pot users a second chance.
In April 2021, the Navy started a two-year pilot program in which otherwise qualified applicants who test positive for marijuana or THC at MEPS can get a waiver to move on to boot camp following a 90-day waiting period. That experiment will run until April 2023.
If a recruit turns out to have THC in their system while at Recruit Training Command, the Navy’s version of basic training, waivers to let them return have been available for years, a service spokesperson said.
“No waiver can be authorized for a positive drug test for anything other than marijuana or THC,” Commander Dave Benham said.
The Army also enforces a 90-day waiting period before aspiring soldiers who test positive for THC at MEPS can ask for a waiver to join the service. If a first-time offender then pops positive for any drug on their second test, they are permanently disqualified from joining the Army, spokesperson Brian McGovern said.
The Marine Corps allows THC-positive recruits to request a waiver that overrides their disqualification. If approved, they can return to MEPS after 45 days.
Defense Department data from 2020 provided to Air Force Times shows that 8% of Americans between the ages of 17-24 are disqualified from military service due to drug abuse, which covers a broader range of prescription and illegal drugs than marijuana alone.
The military services have little control over rules related to illegal substances, particularly in cases like pot where the drug can be legal at the state level but not federal.
All but 11 states have legalized marijuana for medical and/or recreational use: Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
More than half of all new recruits come from states where medical marijuana is legal, the federally funded think tank Rand Corp. said last year.
Combined U.S. medical and recreational cannabis sales could reach $33 billion by the end of 2022, according to the trade publication MJBizDaily. Thousands of dispensaries have sprung up across the country, while the market for products and services that use the calming cannabinoid CBD is booming as well.
Nathalie Grogan, who studies military personnel at the Center for a New American Security, said adjusting the rules on marijuana could play a role in opening the door to as much as one-third of young American men who may have disqualifying past criminal conduct.
“Over-policing of growing minority populations and some states’ legalization of marijuana may be leading to an untenable trajectory if the standards remain unchanged,” Grogan said.
Drug sobriety requirements are one piece of a larger conversation on how communities of color, which are disproportionately impacted by uneven law enforcement and sentencing, and recent criminal justice reforms to address those disparities, factor into military recruitment.
“The military now bars from service most candidates with a significant criminal record or documented history of drug use. At the same time, arrests and drug use are increasing among American youth,” Grogan said. “Arrest rates are higher in low-income communities and communities of color.”
Black people are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in every state, though people of both races use marijuana at similar rates, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. That can further complicate the military’s difficulties in recruiting a force that looks like America.
Amid that debate, Rand Corp. has argued that Army recruits with histories of low-level marijuana use perform on par with other soldiers.
“That should be welcome news in recruiting offices nationwide,” Rand said.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.