Young airmen likely to face testing for illegal drug use at least once a year
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The Air Force’s youngest members will be required to submit to a random drug urinalysis more often as part of a new policy aimed at reducing illegal drug use among junior enlisted and officer ranks.
The Air Force began its “Smart Testing” program Oct. 1 at three major commands and was to implement it Air Force-wide in November. Pacific Air Forces was to roll out the program Monday.
The new policy means that airmen basic through senior airmen and first and second lieutenants likely will have to submit to a random drug test at least once a year — if not more, officials said.
The young troops will be screened more often since statistics show that ranks E-1 to E-4 and O-1 and O-2 — generally airmen 18 to 25 years old — are four times more likely to test positive for illegal drugs than their older counterparts, Air Force officials maintain.
Though across the Air Force the rate of those testing positive for illegal drugs dropped from 0.52 percent in fiscal 2002 to 0.41 percent in fiscal 2003, the service, officials say, is concerned that a majority of identified users are young airmen.
In PACAF, 77 percent of airmen who failed a drug test in fiscal 2003 fell into the junior ranks singled out in the new drug-screening policy, according to Lt. Col. Henry Cashen, chief of behavioral health services, PACAF surgeon general.
“We are not targeting people in junior pay grades; we are targeting those who use illicit drugs,” he stated. “The program change will help deter drug use among young airmen. It will keep them from making poor choices and, if they decide to use drugs, they will get caught.”
Cashen answered questions from Stars and Stripes in writing.
The rest of the service will continue to be tested at a rate of 0.65 tests per person per year, Cashen said.
“The computerized selection program will be changed beginning in November to randomly select members in the junior ranks at a rate of one test, per member, per year, increasing their chances of random selection,” Cashen wrote.
Airmen in the targeted ranks will have a higher probability of selection, though officials can’t say for sure how often because of the program’s random nature.
“The strength of this program is the randomization,” Cashen said. “There is no credit given for being selected on a given day; an airman’s chance of being selected is the same each time the computer program runs, regardless of their personal history of having been selected. Thus, in a given year, some airmen will be selected multiple times; some may not be selected at all.”
A Drug Demand Reduction Program manager — a government civilian employee assigned to the medical group — runs the Air Force drug testing program at bases. Each installation has a designated testing site; Air Force guidance mandates a minimum of eight testing days per month.
In PACAF, the new program will raise the command’s overall testing quota by 23 percent, Cashen said, creating a nominal cost increase for supplies and shipping.
“The larger impact will be on manpower,” he said, since the drug testing program uses airmen detailed from base units to serve as observers. “We can expect our observers to spend additional time away from their normal duties to support this increase in quota,” Cashen wrote.
Cashen also stated that the Air Force’s drug-reduction program is restricted to urinalysis screening only. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations and security forces may elect to use other means for detecting drugs, such as hair or blood samples, he noted.
Junior rank airmen at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, Yokota Air Base near Tokyo and Okinawa’s Kadena Air Base reacted positively Friday to the new program, even though they’re being singled out for more tests.
Senior Airman Andrew Bonjour, 22, a maintenance crew chief with Misawa’s 35th Maintenance Squadron, said the younger troops are more susceptible to drug use since they’re more likely to bow to peer pressure.
“I do think it is a deterrence because nobody wants to pop up on a drug screening, especially if they want to make the military a career,” he said.
Bonjour’s co-worker, Senior Airman Jeff Parker, 20, said “It should come with the territory. You shouldn’t be doing drugs anyway.”
Senior Airman Philip Farnstrom of the 374th Maintenance Squadron at Yokota Air Base hadn’t heard about the policy change but considers it a positive development.
“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” he said Friday. “I think it’ll clear out some less-than-desirable people in the work force.
“It’s a good measure. I don’t want to work next to someone whose priorities aren’t focused on the job because they’re thinking more about what they want to do after work. The workplace suffers and others have to pick up the slack.”
Airman 1st Class Erica Hawks of the 374th Airlift Wing’s command post also was unaware of the impending policy shift but said an expansion of random drug testing could be necessary.
“It seems like there have been a lot of people in trouble recently,” she added. “If that’s what needs to be done to keep it down, it’s fine with me. I don’t think it would’ve been brought up if there wasn’t a problem.
“I’ve been called before to do the test. If you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it. It’s part of military life. I’m not causing the problem, so it doesn’t bother me any.”
Airman Kimberly Drummond with 18th Services Squadron at Kadena said individuals know they are not supposed to be using drugs when they join the service.
“The people who take drugs and get away with it don’t deserve to be in,” she said, adding that if junior enlisted folks are more likely to use drugs, then they should be tested more often.
Also at Kadena, Senior Airman Christopher Ramey, 18th Logistics Readiness Squadron, said he has no problem with certain ranks being targeted.
“I think it’s perfectly fair,” he said. “We don’t need a bunch of people running around doing drugs — they know they can’t do them. Let’s find them and get them out so we can get some good people in.”
In PACAF in fiscal 2003, 60 airmen tested positive for an illegal substance out of 28,817 urinalysis tests, according to figures provided by PACAF. Of those, 46 — or 77 percent — fell within the targeted junior ranks. Cashen noted that of the 60 airmen nabbed for drug use, only 13 were identified through random testing. The others were detected through commander-directed testing, probable-cause testing or unit sweep testing, which also rely on urinalysis screening. PACAF officials said that installation commanders are encouraged to continue these tough measures, along with dorm sweeps, random gate checks and education and prevention programs.
Marijuana historically is the most commonly used drug in PACAF, officials said. Drugs that showed up in fiscal 2003 tests with a positive result broke down as follows: 45 for marijuana, six cocaine, five codeine, three amphetamines and one morphine.
Bonjour, at Misawa, said a urinalysis takes a mere five to 10 minutes to complete.
Though he doesn’t consider it much of an inconvenience, he expects the new policy will mean more visits to Misawa’s drug-testing center for him, since he believes it’s been more than a year since the computer picked his name.
“I think I’m due,” he said.
Vince Little and Fred Zimmerman contributed to this story.