The Army has spent the better part of the last year re-examining how its standards for enlistments and commissions mesh with the current state of young people in America, to include but not limited to increased participation in mental health care and the use of medication to control behaviors like inattention.
Army Secretary Mark Esper has taken a piecemeal approach to addressing those issues, particularly in a late July memo that laid out specific parameters for granting a waiver for self-mutilation. No other serious or major misconduct offense, of which there are nearly 100, has that level of precision in its waiver guidance.
“I will deal with the issues as they come up, as I recognize them as issues,” he told Army Times on Wednesday. “There was, I felt, insufficient guidance to the field in regard to what constitutes self-mutilation.”
The new rules allow one instance as long as it did not occur within five years prior to a bid to join the service. Though the memo didn’t address any other specific offenses, Esper told reporters in July that the door was open to further updates.
The directive also returned authority to the Army G-1 to grant waivers for drug use, and so, in theory, if a prospective recruit admitted to smoking marijuana one time at age 14, current Army guidance would allow that person to enlist if they are otherwise a high-quality candidate.
But if that would-be soldier is perhaps a little older, and has grown up in a state like Colorado, California or Massachusetts ― or another of eight states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use among adults ― it’s possible that he could have been legally smoking marijuana for several years before deciding to join the military. And if he decides to be truthful with his recruiter, his dreams could be dashed.
Despite continuing to adhere to strict Defense Department requirements concerning current and past drug use, senior Army leaders have more than once acknowledged that legal marijuana use as a civilian is worth re-examining.
The former head of Army Recruiting Command told the Associated Press late last year, when he still had authority to grant misconduct waivers, that he had an open mind.
"Provided they understand that they cannot do that when they serve in the military, I will waive that all day long,” Maj. Gen. Jeff Snow said in December, adding that he expected the number of waivers would rise as more states legalized cannabis.
So far they have proved out that trend, AP found, as the Army granted more than 500 waivers for past marijuana use in fiscal year 2017 ― amounting to a quarter of those issued for “misconduct” ― up from 191 in 2016.
Now the waiver authority has been bounced back to the Pentagon, where the Army staff’s personnel chief reviews them.
“I’m confident they thoroughly understand my view, [Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley’s] view, and the whole person concept that we try to embody in that change,” Esper said.
At the same time, the directive tightened rules for these waivers, in that they won’t be granted for soldiers who score in less than the 30th percentile on the Armed Forces Qualification Test.
“If you come up with a waiver, we want to see that you bring other things to the table to make you really worth considering the waiver,” he said.
But when it comes to marijuana use, the Army has not closed the discussion.
“As issues arise, I will not be reluctant to alter the guidance, to make sure that the field has clear guidance,” Esper reiterated Wednesday.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT