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Marijuana Use Is A Likely Death Sentence For A Military Career, Even In California

Medical marijuana clone plants are shown at a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Feb. 1, 2011.
Associated Press
Medical marijuana clone plants are shown at a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Feb. 1, 2011.

California has become the latest state to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana. The military is still figuring out how to handle this societal shift, but for now, marijuana can still easily end a military career.

San Diegans saw the societal shift on January 1, as long lines formed outside Urbn Leaf. The outlet had already been selling marijuana for medical use since March. It was one of a handful of places in San Diego which was ready to begin selling marijuana for recreational use January 1, the first day it became legal in California and they attracted a range of new customers.

“You can see the people who walk in the door. It’s your next door neighbor. It’s your aunt. It’s your grandmother,” said Will Senn, owner of Urbn Leaf.


That clientele may include the wife of a sailor or the husband of a Marine, but not the service members themselves. They are still subject to a zero-tolerance policy regarding use of marijuana. The acceptability and access to marijuana can make life challenging for anyone stationed in California – and for their commanders.

Marijuana Use Is A Likely Death Sentence For A Military Career, Even In California

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With few exceptions, being caught with marijuana or THC in your bloodstream means a sailor is likely to face being discharged, said Jeff Carver, an attorney and retired Navy JAG officer in San Diego who defends active duty people who fail a drug test.

“If you want to be secretary of the Navy, if you want to make a career out of this endeavor, you cannot smoke marijuana,” Carver said. “You cannot eat marijuana brownies and you probably can’t hang out with your friends if they’re smoking marijuana.”


The military has a long history of grappling with marijuana. The scale of drug use in Vietnam was unnerving to the Pentagon. In 1973, the Pentagon released a report on service members returning from combat. The study interviewed returning soldiers and found nearly 70 percent smoked marijuana. More than a third tried heroin. At the time, the military was trying to get its arms around the number of people who may have to be steered into drug treatment.

In the 1981, six of the sailors involved in a crash aboard the USS Nimitz had marijuana in their system. The Navy did not cite marijuana as the cause of the crash that killed 14 sailors, but the scrutiny led in part to the Department of Defense instituting a zero tolerance policy.

That is pretty much where the policy stands today.

In recent years, the Pentagon has been looking at softening that stance, at least in small ways. In the last year of the Obama Administration, speaking before a Silicon Valley crowd at Tech Crunch, Defense Secretary Ash Carter hinted that the Pentagon was rethinking its stance, at least on marijuana use prior to joining.

“We need to understand, and do, how people’s lives have changed. Not hold against them things they did when they were younger. So it’s an important question and yes we can be flexible,” Carter said.

Current Defense Secretary James Mattis has said little about the issue.

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But there are other signs the military may be softening the zero tolerance policy.

The Army and Navy require new recruits to seek a waiver depending on the amount of drug use prior to joining, but that waiver no longer needs go as high up the chain of command, making it easier to obtain.

And last year, the Air Force eliminated past marijuana use as a criteria for barring enlistment, as long as it didn’t result in a criminal penalty.

Jeff Carver, the San Diego attorney who represents military clients, said while testing positive for marijuana is still likely to get you kicked out of the Navy, most marijuana cases no longer go to a criminal trial. He says commanders realize society’s attitudes have changed.

“There is going to be a little more give. A little more love,” Carver said. “These members realize that young sailors are probably having to fend off offers of marijuana all the time. The punishment is probably becoming more liberal.”

That doesn’t mean sailors can expect a free pass. The acting commander at Naval Base San Diego issued a 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.”

Marijuana Use Is A Likely Death Sentence For A Military Career, Even In California
Pot is legal in California and there have been a few cracks in the military's zero tolerance policy. But San Diego's sailors and Marines risk discharge if they are found with marijuana.