Marijuana legalization is sweeping across the country, but there’s no strong evidence that soldiers joining from states with relaxed cannabis laws have worse enlistment outcomes, according to a new study by the Rand Corp.’s federally funded Arroyo Center.
The study looked at regular Army enlistments from 2001 to 2012, and compared those contracts with personnel records through 2018 to track the career outcomes of each recruit.
Rand researchers found some evidence that the legalization of medical marijuana is associated with improvements in recruit outcomes, meaning soldiers from these states are less likely to fail to complete their first term, be demoted, be separated for entry-level performance or be separated for failing a medical or physical standard.
Those datasets are far from complete, researchers cautioned, since many states have only started to change the way they police marijuana in the past few years. But that could be changing.
More than half of 2018′s enlistment contracts came from states where marijuana is legal for medicinal use, up from just 15 percent in 2001. Almost 19 percent of 2018 contracts came from states where marijuana is legalized for recreational use, and that number is growing, too.
Data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that almost 40 percent of 18-year-olds have used marijuana in their lifetime, and almost 20 percent of 18-year-olds used marijuana in the past month. But the percentage of regular Army accessions with a documented history of marijuana use never rose above 2.5 percent between 2001 and 2018.
A “documented history of marijuana” includes all encounters with the drug, including self-admitted use during the enlistment process or an arrest and conviction for using or selling it.
The study also looked at the Army’s waiver policy, not just in regards to drug use, but also in light of the increased prevalence of ADHD, anxiety disorders and depression among young people. Army officials wanted to know whether increasing the number of waivers granted to recruits had an impact on the overall performance of their accessions cohort.
“Waivered recruits are less likely to attrite during [the Delayed Entry Program] or during the first term [of enlistment] and are as likely to reenlist or transition to a commissioned officer compared with similar recruits without waivers,” the study reads. “The exception is recruits with drug/alcohol waivers, who we find have a higher likelihood of first-term attrition. We find similar results for recruits with a documented history of marijuana, ADHD or depression/anxiety.”
Negative outcomes tend to be a result of recidivism. So if a recruit had a waiver for drug use, they’re more likely to be a repeat offender once in the Army.
Those risks are also present among waivered recruits in other categories. Those who receive a weight waiver, for instance, are more likely to have health-related issues in the service.
Ultimately, the study concluded that using waivers can help the Army meet recruitment goals without decreasing readiness.
“The performance of an accession cohort would change relatively little if waivers were increased,” Rand researchers wrote. “The same is true with an increase in the share of accessions with a documented history of marijuana or behavioral health conditions.”
Increasing the use of waivers can lead to “bad optics” for the Army, researchers noted, but less than 15 percent of regular Army accessions received a waiver between 2001 and 2018. About half of waivers during that time period were for health reasons or medical conditions other than weight.
There was an increase in waivers during the Iraq War that peaked at roughly 20 percent in 2008, before falling again to a low of 11 percent in 2012. Misconduct during the Middle East conflicts has often been framed around the rise in those waivers, including drug use and criminal activity in combat zones.
To mitigate such incidents, Rand suggested the Army require that waivered recruits and those with a history of marijuana or behavioral health issues have at least a high school diploma, score in the top half of aptitude tests or be older than 21.
Rand researchers also recommended the Army distinguish between recruits with only a documented history of marijuana and those who have misconduct offenses.
“Separation for drug abuse is less likely for recruits with only a documented history of marijuana without any misconduct offenses, and (unlike those who also have misconduct offenses) they are no more likely to have a suspension of favorable person status than any other recruit,” researchers wrote in the study.
“Furthermore, we find no evidence of substantially worse performance among a cohort of recruits who have a greater share with a documented history of marijuana or evidence of worse performance in states where legalization of marijuana has occurred,” researchers added.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.