British Army Loses 'Batallion' a Year to Drug-Use Discharges

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Research into Compulsory Drugs Testing (CDT) of UK service personnel, published today by the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), has identified a rise in positive tests for illegal substances in the British Army from 517 individual cases in 2003, to 795 in 2005 (and 769 in 2006), and also a four-fold growth in soldiers testing positive for the class-A drug cocaine.

Professor Sheila Bird, a Senior Scientist with the Medical Research Council writing for the RUSI Journal states that the British Army’s substantially increased urinary cocaine positive rate – up from 1.4 per thousand in 2003 to 4.0 and 5.7 per thousand in the first semesters of 2006 and 2007 respectively (up to a four-fold increase) – could however just be the tip of the iceberg.

The government has refused, on the grounds of cost, to disclose key data on CDT practice, such as whether there have been subtle changes in test practice since 2003. Changes might include better test sensitivity, more testing after weekends, or intentionally targeting returnees soon after home leave. Such alterations could go a long way to explaining the increased rate of cocaine positivity without much underlying change in soldiers' infrequent cocaine use. However, if there has been no alteration in CDT practice since 2003, then the cocaine-positive results are worrying on two counts: first, the hike in cocaine positivity signals a genuine change in soldiers' drug use during a period coincident with major operations; secondly, infrequent cocaine use has a high chance of going undetected so that the observed cocaine-positive rates could in fact be masking infrequent cocaine-use rates that are two to three times higher.

Traces of cocaine are found in urine for only two to three days after use. By contrast, cannabis remains in urine for two to three weeks. In 2003, cannabis accounted for half (50 per cent) of all CDT positive tests, whereas cocaine was 22 per cent. By 2006, around 50 per cent of all positive tests registered cocaine use, with cannabis around 30 per cent. Professor Bird’s article suggests soldiers’ drug use may have shifted away from cannabis partly to minimise their chance of testing positive in CDT.

Comparing data gleaned from parliamentary questions on CDT, Professor Bird’s analysis counters claims that this trend is a ‘reflection of society more generally’, when placed in societal context alongside the declared ‘drug use in the last month’ of respondents to the British Crime Survey. The self-reported survey of some 6,000 respondents aged between 16-24 years notes cocaine use to be 28 and 30 per thousand respectively in 2003/04 and 2005/06, and 32 per 1000 in 2006/07. Military cocaine-positive rates, twenty times lower in 2003, were only six times lower in 2006/07.

Since most military personnel who test positive for drugs are dishonourably discharged, irrespective of which illegal drug was misused, these findings will place even more scrutiny on the debate over recruitment and retention of service personnel. Only last month the Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed that seventeen soldiers from the 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) tested positive for cocaine after a rest and relaxation period in Cancun, Mexico following an exercise in Belize.

Professor Sheila Bird, who conducted the research, said:

Military personnel take calculated risks as part of their professional lives. Their calculation about the risk of testing positive in CDT, and ministerial as well as public health scientists’ interpretation of the ongoing hike in soldiers’ cocaine positive rate is severely handicapped by the government’s refusal (on grounds of cost) to disclose key information such as whether the tests are targeted and if the pattern of weekday and weekend testing has altered, in particular since 2003.
If there have been changes to the testing regime with relation to the day the sample is taken, this can have a substantial effect on the rate of positive tests. Such a change could itself discover three times more cocaine positives without there having been any alteration in underlying use of cocaine by service personnel, if their use of cocaine is infrequent, sporadic, but primarily on home leave or at weekends.
If, however, there has been no recent change in test practice, then the cocaine positive findings are genuinely concerning. Why so? Because the 4.0 to 5.7/1000 urinary cocaine test positive rates in 2006 and 2007 could mask a two to three times higher sporadic cocaine user rate, if infrequent use is primarily at weekends and testing is not specifically targeted on Mondays.

Christianne Tipping, Defence Management analyst at RUSI, who has written alongside Professor Bird in the Journal on the MoD’s drugs policy, said:

The issue of an increasing number of drug-related discharges at a time when recruitment and retention are problematic needs to be examined by the MoD.
The hardline policy on drugs has served the MoD well to date. CDT exists to deter rather than to try to catch every single person who might engage in occasional drug use. It also helps to maintain operational effectiveness and reduce possible security risks, such as blackmail. However, there could be a need to look at a more pragmatic management strategy so that recruitment difficulties in certain trades are not compounded by high discharge rates resulting from drug offences. The MoD needs to be sure its near zero tolerance approach still constitutes the best way of managing the problem of drug abuse in the Armed Forces.
Drug abuse in the Armed Forces is a live issue at present, especially after the recent case involving the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, but it is important to stress that drug misuse in the Armed Forces as a whole involves relatively low numbers.

Notes for Editors

The Journal is the leading publication of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Published six times a year, it is an internationally recognised authority on defence and security issues.

Copies of the articles can be viewed online here.

For all media enquiries please contact Daniel Sherman at +44 (0)20 7747 2617 or 07917 373 069 or

CDT is carried out unannounced, unpredictably and at random with respect to weekday or weekend within all three services, having been introduced fully in the Army on 2 May 1995, in the Royal Navy on 1 April 1997 and in the RAF on 1 November 1998.

Professor Sheila Bird is Senior Scientist with the Medical Research Council (MRC), Biostatistics Unit, Cambridge. Sheila chaired the Royal Statistical Society’s Working Party on Performance Monitoring in the Public Services.

Christianne Tipping is RUSI’s Defence Management analyst.

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Journal December 2007

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