As more states across the country legalize recreational marijuana, there’s at least one place where the rules haven’t changed: the military. Active service members are strictly forbidden to use marijuana, whether it’s recreational or medicinal.
That creates tension in places that both rely on the economic stability nearby military bases bring and also have the opportunity to create a local recreational marijuana marketplace — which can bring in hefty tax dollars.
Colorado Springs is a prime example. Five years after voters legalized recreational marijuana, it remains the largest Colorado city that has not yet allowed recreational dispensaries to set up shop. It’s likely no coincidence the city also has five military bases.
“I’ve been back in the Pentagon, with the Chamber, with other members of our community, seeking new missions [and] seeking to protect our bases,” said Colorado Springs City Council member-elect Wayne Williams at a recent candidate debate.
“The last thing we need to do is make recreational marijuana yet another reason why the Defense Department opts to take missions, troops, personnel … and move it somewhere else,” Williams said.
Andrew Heaton runs a medical marijuana dispensary in the Springs, which are legal. He said he’s heard of other military towns like Huntsville, Alabama — home of the Army’s Redstone Arsenal — trying to use its state’s prohibition of marijuana as a reason for the armed forces to consider locating missions there.
Heaton disputes that having legal marijuana near a base means more soldiers will use the drug. He argued soldiers can still go off-base in a city like Huntsville and buy pot on the black market.
“In a community where it’s legal, you’ve got it off the streets for the most part,” Heaton said.
There are many who would debate that point; just last December the city busted eight businesses accused of illegally selling marijuana. Aside from that, Heaton pointed out military members undergo random drug tests. If a soldier tests positive, it doesn’t matter where the marijuana came from.
“None of them want to get what they call the BCD, the ‘big chicken dinner,’ which is a bad conduct discharge,” he said.
The military, for its part, actively works to educate and dissuade soldiers from using marijuana.
Standing up in a rec center at Fort Carson is a doorframe-sized poster headlined “The Costs of Marijuana.” Through charts and graphics, it lists the Army’s perspective on pot’s physical costs, social costs and usage trends.
“it emphasizes the fact that marijuana still continues to be the drug of choice in all of our services,” said Donna Clouse, prevention services branch chief for the Army’s Substance Abuse Program.
Her group created the poster, which is displayed at bases around the country. The poster also includes a color-coded map of the U.S., showing where marijuana is legal recreationally or medically.
“We understand there might be confusion, especially for individuals who live in the states where marijuana use is legal,” Clouse said.
For the military, there’s no confusion. It is never OK for soldiers to use marijuana, even in a state where it’s legal.
Not surprisingly, active duty soldiers are wary of talking about any marijuana use. But as legalization has spread, some veterans are getting increasingly vocal, saying it’s time to re-examine the policy.
Army veteran Matthew Kahl served two tours in Afghanistan. His second deployment ended after a severe injury to his face, a traumatic brain injury, spinal injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. It left him taking about 20 different medications.
Kahl moved to Colorado to try marijuana as an alternative and said it largely worked. He started reducing his pills, medication by medication, until he stopped taking any of them. He now runs an organization focused in part on securing the right for veterans to use medical cannabis, and thinks it’s time to be realistic about active duty soldiers and drug use.
"I know of people who are deployed, and they often come across hash in Afghanistan,” Kahl said. “They use hash to medicate not just to medicate the horrors, the hardships of war, but to alleviate the boredom.”
Hash is the resin of the cannabis plant that has the same psychoactive effect of marijuana.
Clouse said this is all beside the point. As long as marijuana remains illegal federally, it will remain incompatible with both military and civilian services in the Army.
Last year, the Department of Defense released a memo specifically reaffirming its prohibition on marijuana — medical or otherwise.
Clouse said the Army has not seen any significant uptick in marijuana violations in the five years that recreational marijuana has been legal in Colorado.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.