Maryland’s recreational marijuana market legally opened on 1 July 2023. Adults aged 21 and older can now possess and use limited amounts of marijuana for recreation. Given that the Naval Academy is in downtown Annapolis, this change opens greater risk of THC exposure for midshipmen. Establishments once safe for midshipmen without fear of exposure or risk of negative perception must now be reconsidered. This further extends to installations in any states loosening restrictions on marijuana and cannabis products.
As of this July, 22 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. The wave of legalization also includes Washington, D.C., and Guam—two areas with a large naval presence. California, Virginia, Washington, and Connecticut, which host a significant number of military installations, also have completely legalized recreational marijuana use. Pressure also is building for decriminalization and allowances for medicinal use in states where marijuana use remains illegal. The Navy and military have enforced the marijuana ban for service members with mandatory drug testing; however, the increased presence of cannabis products in civilian life in proximity to military installations provides a threat to the ban’s efficacy.
This rise of cannabis-based products has grown sharply over the past two decades. Cannabis-derived hemp protein supplements are added to oatmeal and shakes. The non-psychoactive Cannibidol, known commonly as CBD, has advertised health benefits and is now a popular addition to everything from energy drinks to shampoo. While hemp and CBD alone do not contain the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana is a THC-bearing strain. Meanwhile, the federal government still criminalizes marijuana. The DEA classifies marijuana as a Class I drug in the same category as heroin. Federal employees are prohibited from using marijuana.
However, change is coming. Last year, the Air Force and Space Force joined the rest of the branches of the military in allowing marijuana waivers in cases of initial positive tests during processing for enlistment. The Navy has adopted similar measures. However, these policy changes only cover the initial enlistment process and do not yet account for accidental exposure or the increasing number of legal changes toward marijuana at the state level.
The Navy should consider the implications of its current policy as well as alternative policies to approach the increasing presence of cannabis in daily life. For example, service members now must consider whether establishments that provide cannabis-based products are appropriate or even safe for them to visit. Association with family members who use cannabis-based products for medicinal or recreational purposes poses risk for negative perception or even accidental exposure.
The Navy’s current policy prohibiting all use fails to provide solutions for the chance of accidental exposure by service members who live in states where cannabis is present to a higher degree. While service members have a responsibility to check labels on the products they consume, the potential for exposure from friends and family through food products without labels is an extra risk that remains present. Accidental exposures pose a significant risk to law-abiding service members as they face legal pressure to provide evidence of involuntary exposure by an increasingly large number of sources. For example, while on leave service members could ingest food prepared by their parents unknowingly containing hemp-derived products. After returning from leave and taking a urinalysis, he or she tests positive. Before the wave of decriminalization, a positive test result would indicate deliberate use. Today, a positive result could come from a variety of sources—including accidental exposure. Outside of the waivers now offered for THC during the initial stages of enlistment, the DoD has not updated its policy to keep up with the growing risk of exposure to THC.
The Problem with CBD
Given its potential benefits and the lack of impairment for use, CBD has been increasingly added to various food, drinks, and skincare products. While products containing THC are still federally illegal, CBD became legal in 2018. The CDC states that CBD derived from hemp is “defined as any part of the cannabis sativa plant with no more than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).” Many of these products advertise CBD and its potential health benefits; however, some products only mention CBD on the ingredient list despite containing trace amounts of THC.
While DoD policy currently prohibits CBD use, it is important to consider the potential risks of changing the policy without addressing the overlap between CBD products and THC. Revising Navy policy to allow CBD use risks increasing exposure to trace amounts of THC in CBD products advertised as “THC-Free.” In a 2022 University of Kentucky study, researchers found the presence of THC in their sampled CBD products with .008 mg/mL, or 8000 ng/mL, with higher detection presence in some products tested claiming to be “THC-Free” in amounts as high as .656 mg/mL or 656,000 ng/mL. In CBD products with particularly high THC concentrations, the ingestion of these compounds increases the risk for detectable THC in urinalysis drug testing. Per DoD Instruction 1010.16, Technical Procedures for Military Personnel Drug Abuse Testing Program, the initial screening concentration for delta-9 (THC) in a urinalysis test is 50 ng/mL with confirmation drug testing cutoff at 15 ng/mL. If DoD pushed for allowing CBD use for service members, the risk for accidental THC positive tests would be significantly greater by the variation of THC in cannabis-based products. Accidental ingestion also may occur if friends or family members unknowingly provide products containing CBD.
A positive drug test from accidental exposure can lead to legal investigations for Marines and sailors. They are required to prove their innocence after potentially unknown exposure through ingestion at restaurants, bars, or local establishments in states with both legalized marijuana and military installations. For Naval Academy midshipmen, accidental exposure and the ensuing legal pressure of potential separation from service would amplify the already rigorous workload of their academics and military obligations.
Foreign Responses to Legalization
The dilemma of civilian legalization of recreational marijuana use on service members is not unique to the United States. Few countries have legalized marijuana for recreational use, but Canada is a notable example of the integration of military conduct amid marijuana legalization. Service members in the Canadian Armed Forces have been free to consume cannabis products, including marijuana with THC, since 2018. Instead of a complete ban, Canadian Armed Forces service members are allowed to use cannabis products with restrictions to account for their military obligations. The Canadian Department of National Defence released an instruction for waiting periods for consumption of marijuana eight hours prior to a duty status along with full-day and 28-day waiting periods for high-risk activities including “operations or handling of a weapon, ammunition, explosive or explosive” and “controlling or directing an aerospace platform or asset,” among others. For Canadian service members serving in an international capacity, their consumption of marijuana is restricted for the duration of their service in that capacity.
Thailand also legalized marijuana in 2022; however, the Royal Thai Armed Forces took a more restrictive approach. Upon legalization, “Prime Minister General Chan-o-cha . . . ordered all military units to prohibit the use of cannabis and hemp in areas that fall under their jurisdiction.” While military leaders have chosen to maintain an anti-marijuana stance, the Thai Ministry of Defense has opted to allow exceptions in the case of marijuana for medical use. Meanwhile, Thai military leaders maintained strong opposition in the face of the anticipated rise of the legal marijuana market in the civilian world.
The Canadian approach poses a more relaxed option. However, subsequent marijuana use by U.S. service members would require cultural and professional measures to align with mission requirements. Federal decriminalization would be required for the Canadian option to be realistic. Opening marijuana use with restrictions based on job requirements would drastically reduce the repercussions of accidental exposure for most Marines and sailors. However, measures to prevent exposure and consumption before high-risk activities would have to be severe. Alternative and rapid testing methods for THC would help prevent accidents caused by impairment that would otherwise be missed by physical screening for sobriety.
Opening marijuana use to federal workers and service members would be a significant policy and legal change. Until that happens, military installations need to keep a close eye on their surrounding communities. For the Naval Academy, midshipmen regularly visit local bars, restaurants, and stores during liberty. Yet, the Academy has not taken measures to restrict access to locations that offer THC or CBD options. Currently, the Naval Academy does not provide a clear list of “off-limits” establishments. If the current federal policy toward marijuana remains in place, unit and installation leaders need to identify locations with heightened risk for Marines and sailors.
Whether the federal government maintains its policy on marijuana or loosens it, service members would benefit from more rapid and accurate THC testing options. In the case of loosened restrictions, THC screening would be necessary for high-risk activities. In the case of no policy change, rapid testing options would reduce the time between exposure and detection. For cases of involuntary exposure, a shortened time frame would allow individuals to better trace the source of their exposure rather than waiting several weeks after drug test results.
In the Canadian policy, hyperbaric environments—such as parachuting or operating an aircraft—require a 28-day THC-free period prior to duty. While this policy would prevent intentional use, accidental exposure prior to duty remains a risk. Rapid testing measures prior to similar high-risk operations can reduce the risk of operating outside of these criteria.
Open THC Use to Service Members
In the event of federal decriminalization of marijuana, the DoD should consider adopting a Canadian-style policy to allow restricted use of THC. The Canadian-style policy could decrease the risk for exposure to a vast number of service members by allowing for periods of consumption of THC. Some service members would have added restrictions of THC use prior to high-risk activities, but the service-wide risk for accidental exposure would be limited for those not required to undertake high-risk activities.
Change the Service-Wide Attitude Toward Cannabis
While opening cannabis products to service members would alleviate concerns of exposure for standardized drug testing, it is important to note that accidental exposure would still be a risk. Within the framework of a Canadian-style policy, service members in high-risk activities would still need to be cautious in consuming products that would interfere with their occupational specialty. The lack of rapid testing procedures, such as a breathalyzer, would prevent an accurate indication of ingestion. But, freeing service members from the risk of making a career-ending decision compared with much more minor punishment provides a clearer path to developing a policy in tune with the change in legalization for the rest of the nation.
Integrate THC Training Use as an Annual Training Requirement
Having annual training educating service members on the risk of accidental exposure and restrictions on usage would keep them up to date on updates to the policy. As allowing THC would be a significant change to the DoD, educating service members on the regulations surrounding its usage would provide them the resources and guidelines to navigate the change.
The national wave of legalization and change in societal attitude toward marijuana requires a solution for service members. While DoD policy remains constrained by federal law, potential federal decriminalization of marijuana offers the chance to revise the policy on marijuana. If the current drug policy remains unchanged, service members will continue to navigate an increasingly prevalent exposure to marijuana with career ending outcomes. Recognizing the weaknesses of the current policy and looking at the solutions developed by our Canadian counterparts mitigates unnecessary pressure on service members.