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House Defense Bill Proposes Ending Marijuana Testing for Military Recruits

A provision in an essential bill moving through Congress would end marijuana testing for military recruits and those who apply for officer training.

According to news reports, the current version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contains language that would eliminate the practice of testing military recruits for past marijuana use. The NDAA is a crucial bill that Congress must pass every year, as it funds the U.S. armed forces and sets military policy. The House of Representatives passed the bill on June 14 with the provision ending marijuana testing intact. However, the NDAA faces a controversial fight in the Democrat-controlled Senate due to many amendments that Republican House members attached to the bill related to abortion, diversity initiatives, and transgender rights.

The move to potentially end marijuana testing for recruits comes as all branches of the armed forces have struggled to get people to sign up for military service. Currently, past marijuana use bars people from joining the military, and a recent Gallup poll found that 12 percent of Americans ages 18-29 – the age group most sought for military recruitment – regularly use marijuana. (The poll defined “regular” marijuana use as at least 10 days per month.)

Armed Forces Push to End Marijuana Testing for Recruits

Faced with this recruitment crisis, several branches of the military are experimenting with ways to relax some barriers to entry. The Air Force has a pilot program in place that allows potential recruits a chance to reapply for service after a positive marijuana test. The program has proven more popular than expected, as officials report that while they anticipated only 50 potential retests when they launched the program, the Air Force granted 165 waivers in the program’s first year. The Navy has also implemented a program to grant waivers for recruits who test positive for marijuana use, as has the Army.

If the NDAA passes are currently written, it would end marijuana testing for recruits across all branches of the armed forces. The current proposal mirrors a similar amendment that Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-FL, proposed last year. Gaetz’s proposal never got a vote, though, and was not included in that year’s version of the NDAA.

In addition to facing potential resistance in the Senate, the White House has said that it is opposed to ending cannabis testing for potential military recruits. A Statement of Administration Policy from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reads, in part, “The use of marijuana by Servicemembers is a military readiness and safety concern.”

The proposal to end cannabis testing for recruits is another signal that lawmakers’ attitudes toward drug use have shifted dramatically in recent years. According to the Texas Tribune, the 2023 NDAA included a proposal from Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-TX, that directed the Defense Department to start offering grants to study the potential for using psychedelic drugs to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among active duty service members. The Department of Veterans Affairs is already studying the potential for using psychedelics to treat PTSD among veterans.

Move Comes as Federal and State Authorities Enact Broader Cannabis Reforms

The potential move to eliminate marijuana testing as a requirement to join the military comes as the Biden Administration has taken broad steps to reduce restrictions on cannabis use generally and help those who have received jail terms for drug offenses.

Currently, marijuana is a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Schedule I drugs are considered to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Other drugs in Schedule I include heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and peyote.

Cannabis remains a Schedule I drug despite being legal for recreational use in 24 states and Washington, D.C. Another 13 states allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes.

While marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, the Justice Department recently announced a proposal to move it from Schedule I to Schedule III under the CSA. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Schedule III drugs have some medicinal purposes and “a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.” Moving cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III would not legalize it, but it could pave the way for broader reforms and would reduce the penalties for anyone facing federal drug possession charges. (The penalties for possessing Schedule I drugs are much harsher than for possessing Schedule III drugs.)

“This is monumental,” President Joe Biden said in a video statement supporting the Justice Department’s proposal. “Far too many lives have been upended because of a failed approach to marijuana, and I’m committed to righting those wrongs. You have my word on it.”

President Biden has also pardoned thousands of Americans convicted of marijuana possession under federal law. The Department of Health and Human Services also supports rescheduling marijuana under the CSA.

States Take Note

Several states have recently followed President Biden’s lead in issuing broad pardons for those convicted of low-level marijuana charges. Following approval from the state’s Governor’s Council in April, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey pardoned thousands of people convicted on these charges.

“Massachusetts made history today. I’m grateful to the Governor’s Council for their due diligence in approving my request to pardon all state misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions,” Healey said in a statement after the pardons went through. “Thousands of Massachusetts residents will now see their records cleared of this charge, which will help lower the barriers they face when seeking housing, education or a job.”

Similarly, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore recently issued a mass pardon for an estimated 100,000 people convicted of minor marijuana possession charges.

“We aren’t nibbling around the edges. We are taking actions that are intentional, that are sweeping and unapologetic,” Moore said at an event to announce the pardons. “Policymaking is powerful. And if you look at the past, you see how policies have been intentionally deployed to hold back entire communities.”

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