© 2024 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Active Duty Military Are Navigating Changing Attitudes Toward Marijuana


California is the latest state to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana. And there are major military installations in this state, which means the military is grappling with the new law. Steve Walsh from member station KPBS has the story.

WILL SENN: Just behind you here you've got all your concentrates that we offer, as well as the seeds if you're looking to grow your own.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Will Senn owns Urbn Leaf, which began selling marijuana for recreational use on the first day it became legal in California this year. There were long lines outside his storefront outlet in San Diego.

SENN: You know, you can see the people that walk in the door. It's your next-door neighbor. It's your aunt. It's your grandmother.

WALSH: That may also include the wife of a sailor or the husband of a Marine, but not the service members themselves, who are still subject to a zero-tolerance policy on marijuana. That can make life even more challenging for anyone stationed in California and their commanders. Jeff Carver is an attorney and retired JAG officer in San Diego who defends people on active duty who fail a drug test. He read from the Navy's latest copy of the "Manual For Court Martial."

JEFF CARVER: (Reading) In the military, any - that's in italics - drug offense is serious because of high potential for adversely affecting readiness and mission performance.

WALSH: With few exceptions, being caught with marijuana or THC in your bloodstream means you're likely to face discharge, the end of a military career.

CARVER: If you want to be secretary of the Navy, you want to make a career out of this endeavor, you cannot smoke marijuana. You can't eat marijuana brownies. And you probably can't hang out with your friends if they're smoking marijuana.

WALSH: The military has a long history of grappling with marijuana. The scale of drug use in Vietnam was making the evening news, and it was unnerving to the Pentagon. This report appeared on CBS.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Recent surveys estimate that well over 50 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam use marijuana.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You get really stoned.

WALSH: The actual number, according to a Pentagon study, was closer to 70 percent of the troops in combat were using marijuana at some point. In 1981, some sailors involved in a crash aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz had marijuana in their system. It led to a zero-tolerance policy. That's pretty much where the policy stands today across the military. But in recent years, the Pentagon has been looking at that policy. In the last year of the Obama administration, speaking before a Silicon Valley crowd, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hinted that the Pentagon was rethinking its stance, at least on marijuana used prior to joining.


ASH CARTER: We need to understand - and we do - the way people are - have - lives have changed - not hold against them things that they've done when they were younger. And so it's an important question. And the answer is yes. We can be flexible.

WALSH: Current Defense Secretary James Mattis has not spoken about the issue. But there are other signs the military may be softening the zero-tolerance policy. The Army and Navy have made it easier to allow potential recruits to obtain a waiver for those who used marijuana prior to enlisting. And last year, the Air Force eliminated past marijuana use as a reason for barring enlistment as long as it didn't result in a criminal penalty. Jeff Carver, the San Diego attorney who represents military clients, says while testing positive for marijuana is still likely to get you kicked out of the Navy, most marijuana cases no longer go to criminal trial. He says commanders realize that society's attitudes have changed.

CARVER: There's got to be a little more give, a little more love there than there used to be. I mean, these members realize that young sailors are probably having to fend off offers of marijuana all the time. You know, the punishment probably is becoming more liberal.

WALSH: That doesn't mean sailors can expect a free pass. The acting commander of Naval Base San Diego issued this statement ahead of recreational marijuana becoming legal in California, restating that marijuana remains strictly forbidden under federal law and that we continue to enforce our zero-tolerance policy. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Walsh