In November 2018, the then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that Army chiefs were drafting a zero-tolerance drug policy that would see soldiers caught using illegal substances, immediately dismissed and banned from rejoining or enlisting in the reserves. This new policy was bought in as, in his words:
“The use of such substances is incompatible with military service and has no place in our Armed Forces.”
For the most part, it’s hard to disagree with Gavin Williamson on this: Recreational drug use falls well outside of the values and standards expected of our troops and a hard-lined approach is needed if you want to deter would-be substance abusers and ensure that those standards are upheld. But the problem with a zero-tolerance policy is that it takes away a commanding officer’s ability to look at each case objectively and consider the reasons behind a soldier falling below the mark.
Drug use isn’t always cocaine off of a key in a festival portaloo. Sometimes it is non-prescribed medication to help with an inability to sleep or a way to make the nightmares stop. Sometimes it’s steroids or similar so you can stop being the only member of the platoon who can’t get up the rope. The temporary high might be the only escape from the depression and anxiety experienced after kinetic operations.
Do we not owe it to review each case individually and ask the question, what made this soldier turn to drugs? Because if it is as a coping mechanism for an underlying service related mental health issue such as PTSD, anxiety or depression, then surely duty of care requires us to treat, support and rehabilitate, rather than just dismiss?
Fast forward to present day and Ben Wallace, the new Defence Minister has announced that he is scrapping the zero-tolerance approach outlined by Mr Williamson. His reasons were some people were just “young and irresponsible” and it should be down to their commanding officers to decide whether they should remain in the Army or not.
There’s something we’re in wholehearted agreement on. This seems like a much more sensible approach. Our hope is that commanding officers will go one step further and not just assess whether someone falls into two boxes: irresponsible or drug addict. Our hope is that commanding officers will ask the harder questions.
What made you turn to drugs?
What more could we as your superiors, have done to support the underlying issues?
What can we do now we’re aware of the problem?
What is the best course of action for YOU as an individual?
It costs a serious chunk of taxpayer’s money to train a soldier to a standard ready to fight for their country. It doesn’t make sense to dismiss them for drug use as a rule. There has to be a level of common sense thinking when looking at each case.
If we continue to force drug users out of the Armed Forces without asking the questions above, we’re creating a breeding ground for deeply ingrained untreated mental health issues among our veteran community. We’re pushing more traffic onto understaffed, under-resourced civilian mental health pathways and increasing the likelihood that something that could have been treated in service ends in the worst kind of way.
So we’re kicking off the week leading up to World Mental Health Day with a big thank you to Ben Wallace MP for giving commanding officers the power to ask the hard questions on drug use and the reasons behind it.