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Drugs and Drug Testing

The whole topic had me conflicted for most if not all of my career.

During my tenure in the Coast Guard from 1983 to 2009, I do not believe we had a sufficient drug problem to warrant the kind of program we employed to identify drug users.  At the same time, I understood (and still understand) the value of a clean, drug free workplace; particularly when there is such a degree of dependence on others for your own safety and in getting the job done.  It is also my understanding that not too long before I joined the Coast Guard that drug use was rampant in some circles and something had to be done. 

As an aside, people often find it confusing that I support a drug free Coast Guard yet I favor the legalization of marijuana.  Look, I oppose any law that restricts personal choice right up until it impacts public safety.  I’ve always felt that if you want to kill yourself, be it with drugs, booze or an even through participation in extreme sporting activity, that’s your right as long as you don’t want to take me with you.

My first Coast Guard experience with drug testing came about two days after I reported to Officer Candidate School at our base in Yorktown, VA.  When we fell out after breakfast, the Company Officer announced that we would be all heading over to medical for a mandatory urinalysis for drug use.  Of course, all of us had hit the head before falling out so we stood around drinking water and being barked at for a couple hours until everyone could provide a sample.  Looking back, I'm sure that the timing of the announcement was a well orchestrated bit of hazing just to let us know that at that particular moment, they owned us 100%.  Note to self - it worked!

I should note that my recruiter warned me about this so it was no surprise (other than the timing) at least to me.  My recruiter never came right out and asked me if I had ever used drugs, but he advised me to check “no” on the enlistment application.  He did ask if I had ever been arrested for drug use.  Since I hadn’t smoked any weed in well over a year the thought of a drug test was of little concern to me.

I was told by many veteran members that we had a fair amount of drug use in the 70’s prior to the implementation of service wide drug testing.  Naturally these are purely anecdotal, but I heard the same story so many times that there had to be a certain degree of truth.  I understood that it was quite common for crew members to gather on the fantail of a cutter and smoke some weed.  If they saw anyone coming, they could simply flick the evidence overboard.

The best story I ever heard was when the Coast Guard decided to actually implement a drug testing regimen.   I have heard from many unrelated people that the first unit tested was a remote small boat station in New England.  Of the 24 members of the crew, 22 tested positive for marijuana usage.  The only two who didn’t were the Officer in Charge and a Seaman Apprentice who had reported from boot camp that morning.  When questioned later, the new SA admitted that he had plans to meet some of the crew and partake in some weed when he got off duty later that afternoon.

Needless to say that “experiment” set off a firestorm.  No one knows if that was an oddity or it the Coast Guard really had a 90+ % drug use rate.  That didn’t matter, the Commandant made the decision to go all out and we did.

Drug testing was supposed to be “for cause” or “random”.  Of course, you could get around those conditions and just test everyone at a unit since that was also allowed.  It took me about a week to miraculously be selected for a “random” drug test.  It was amazing how new people to Group Detroit managed to be “randomly” selected within days of their arrival.  It was also amazing how the Group Commander, Deputy Group Commander, Admin Officer and the Corpsman that ran the program were never selected “randomly”.  Since it was obvious that units couldn’t manage a truly random program, it wasn’t long and District Offices took control.  I was tested a lot in the 80’s at Group Detroit, on the Ironwood and at MSO Louisville.  During my first seven years in the Coast Guard, I averaged between 2 and 3 tests a year.

The program wasn’t cheap either.  In those days tests were around 50 bucks a piece.  The Coast Guard has always like a good witch hunt and in the 80’s drug testing was often just that.  An individual who was perhaps not particularly well liked by a supervisor could find themselves the target of frequent drug testing under the guise of “for cause” testing.  Naturally if you didn’t use drugs you didn’t have to be concerned, but once you got the term “druggie” hung on you it didn’t matter that you didn’t use drugs as you were convicted without proof.  Sure you couldn't be discharged without a positive test, but you could easily find yourself being treated in such a manner that a discharge sounded like a good idea.

By the time I got to the Marine Safety Center in 1993, some sanity had been adopted into the program.  Control had gone so high that we really did have a random program.  If you were selected, you had to report to a room at Headquarters.  I remember being selected as a Lieutenant Commander and walking into the waiting room with four others and I was the junior man.  There were two Commanders, a Captain and a Rear Admiral.  We had enough brass in the room to make a spittoon.  The Admiral quipped that he had just been tested a couple weeks ago.  I joked that they put all the Flag Officers in the pot twice.  We had a nice laugh.

As we got in the 2000’s, the pace of testing slowed down dramatically.  I went two years at Coast Guard Headquarters (2001-2003) and only was selected once.  During my entire tenure at MSO Huntington, my number again only came up once.  I was never selected during my final tour in Louisville.

For all the missteps with the program, I still think based on what I’ve been told it was something we needed to do and still do need in place.  I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would join the Coast Guard and then use illegal drugs.

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