This story was updated Sept. 28 at 1:51 p.m. to include data on applicants who test positive for THC that was provided after press time.
The Air Force and Space Force are now offering a second chance to applicants who test positive for the high-inducing chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) during their entrance physical.
The temporary policy change marks an attempt to rethink an aspect of the Air Force’s stringent ban on marijuana use as the service struggles to meet its recruiting goals.
“Previously, a positive THC result on the initial test would have led to a permanent bar from entry into the [Air Force or Space Force],” Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said. “The pilot program offers some prospective applicants an opportunity to retest after 90 days if they are granted a waiver.”
To earn a waiver, applicants must score at least 50 points on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, have no felony or misdemeanor convictions, possess a high school diploma and be otherwise medically qualified for service. They must meet all other qualification standards as well.
“If those who have been granted a waiver pass a second test, candidates will be allowed to enlist,” Stefanek said.
Once admitted, though, airmen and guardians must adhere to the military’s ban on drug use. The policy applies to recruits for the active duty Air Force and Space Force, the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard.
The two-year pilot program will end in September 2024. It brings the Department of the Air Force in line with the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, which already have similar rules in place.
When the trial run ends, the Air Force will look at the results to decide whether to make the policy change permanent.
Drugs like pot that are legal at the state level — but not federal — pose a conundrum for the armed forces, which have little control over rules related to illegal substances.
The Pentagon prohibits troops from smoking, eating or otherwise using marijuana and marijuana-derived products, including those with THC or the calming compound cannabidiol. However, it’s up to the services to decide how to handle applicants who use those products before joining the military.
All but 11 states have legalized marijuana for medical and/or recreational use as the industry continues to boom. Weed remains illegal in Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
More than half of all new military recruits come from states where medical marijuana is legal, the federally funded think tank Rand Corp. said last year. Rand’s research indicates that Army recruits with histories of low-level marijuana use perform on par with other soldiers.
The Air Force turns away about 50 applicants from Military Entrance Processing Stations each year because they have THC in their system, recruiting spokesperson Leslie Brown said Wednesday.
MEPS collects that data across all of the armed forces and does not break down numbers by service, Brown said. Still, the number has steadily risen in recent years, from 165 THC-positive applicants in 2020 to 226 in 2021 and 290 in 2022.
When considering how to tweak that criteria without hurting the military, “we have to be exceptionally smart in how we assess the risk,” Air Force Recruiting Service boss Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas told reporters Sept. 21.
“We’ve been able to collect a lot better data … to be able to make outcome-based medical decisions on who we bring in and who we don’t,” he said.
Thomas said that’s helped the service offer waivers to more applicants — in some cases, growing recruitment by 30% among people with certain medical conditions.
“If we accept this … what’s the effect on attrition?” he said. “What’s the effect on deployability? What’s the effect on medical costs? Lost duty days? We’re able to … make better decisions.”
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.