Official: Air Force drug testing seems to deter use
A few years ago, Senior Airman Heather Brewster’s recreational use of painkillers would have gone undetected by the Air Force’s random drug testing program.
Brewster, who formerly worked at a regional drug testing site at RAF Upwood in England, was convicted last week of illegally using the prescription drug oxycodone, falsifying documents and dereliction of her duties in the Air Force’s drug testing program.
The Air Force only began testing for painkillers, such as oxycodone, in 2006, after abuse of those drugs began to rise in the general public, said Lt. Col. Jay Stone, Substance Abuse Program Manager for the Air Force Surgeon General.
At the same time, barbiturates — pills taken as sedatives or hypnotics — were dropped from the testing list at the Air Force’s dedicated drug testing laboratory in San Antonio. Those decisions were made by the Department of Defense and also affected the tests processed by the Army and Navy, Stone said.
But exclusive to the Air Force is its “smart” testing initiative that screens junior ranks — E-1 to E-4 and O-1 and O-2 — more frequently. The program was launched in 2004 after Air Force officials noted a higher rate of drug abuse among 18- to 24-year-old airmen.
“The idea was to increase the rate of testing for the population that data had been showing us was the highest risk group,” Stone said.
Testing in that demographic was hiked from 65 percent to 100 percent, he said, adding that because the tests are administered randomly some troops may be tested more than once while others not at all, although the number of tests for junior ranks equals its number of servicemembers.
The Air Force spends about $16 million annually to operate its drug testing and prevention programs.
So far, “smart” testing seems to curb drug abuse — not necessarily by catching more people using drugs, but by deterring them from doing it in the first place, Stone said.
“It gives them the ammunition to say ‘I’m going to pass up that doobie because I don’t want my name selected on Monday,” he said. “That way they don’t have to appear to be no fun. The excuse is ‘I don’t want to risk getting caught.’”
The Air Force has reported a steady annual decline in positive results since the initiative was implemented in 2004. However, because new drugs were added and others discarded to urinalysis, and medical reviews were added to the statistical process to remove those with prescriptions for the drugs found in their urine, the preliminary data may not be conclusive, Stone said.
Still, in 2004, .8 percent of the 432,409 specimens tested positive for drugs while only .5 percent of the 391,283 specimens tested positive in 2007. The latter data excludes samples collected from members of the Air Guard.
While painkillers may be more commonly abused these days and will now show up on a urinalysis, marijuana and cocaine remain at the top of the list, Stone said.
Drug-related cases consume a lion’s share of courts-martial in the Air Force, records show.
In 2007, 43 percent of the 86 courts-martial tried within U.S. Air Forces in Europe revolved around cases that included at least one drug charge. That statistic jumps to 50 percent for the 776 courts martial conducted that same year Air Force-wide.