Weed and War: Getting away with smoking in the Army and why the military should lighten up

Definitely the worst part about joining the military was when I had to stop smoking weed.

I don’t really smoke anymore. It’s more of a casual thing. But I used to. A lot.

It was maybe the hardest part of enlisting in the Army, first because I had to pass a drug test, but secondly because I had to make a decision that changed the very essence of my 19-year-old self.

No weed? What kind of idiot would subject themselves to that kind of fascism? Me, apparently. My reasons for doing so are complicated and dumb. The truth is, I never quite gave up on Mary Jane in the military. 

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Marijuana use has always been act of subversion and dissent among service members, probably at least since the Vietnam War. For that reason, it’s always been seen as nonconformist — not an idea military leaders are keen on. But the military is also changing. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed shortly after I left the Army. A new policy banning transgender people from serving in the military has been met with resistance from the United States’ secretary of defense. Women are being trained in combat roles. Despite its boorish nature, the military has always been on an incline toward progress.

Just not if you’re a pothead.

I knew enough people in the military, including some of the senior enlisted (staff sergeants, sergeants first class), who had spent years in the Army, smoking weed on a semi-regular basis and had managed to keep their record clean. I know because they bragged about it. I also knew just as many promising young soldiers who had fallen from grace after they were selected for a piss test and subsequently stripped of their rank, given extra duty and ultimately kicked out with a dishonorable discharge. These guys, regardless of former deployments or their tabs (RANGER, SAPPER, etc.), typically became pariahs; treated poorly by their leadership and held at arm’s length by their peers. And it wasn’t because people thought marijuana was bad. It was just that getting caught was bad.

It was a risky game that I was playing, so I had to be smart if I was going to smoke.

I really only did it on the occasional trip back to Washington state. Marijuana always helped me relax, and I spent all four months of Basic Training in the sweltering heat of Fort Leonardwood, Missouri, very unrelaxed. After a full summer of screaming and pushups and endless marches through Missouri’s sweltering forests, I was fiending for a good hit.

Things didn’t improve much when I was stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas. I was hoping to get a post in Hawaii or, at least, close to home in Washington. But I didn’t. Fort Riley was a dump, and everyone knew it. This was a cultural climate fully lacking any marijuana. I knew guys who smoked on base. I even knew one guy who sold. But they were crazy. Anyone and everyone felt like a cop in that place.

Urine samples were rare in Iraq, but unlike Afghanistan, marijuana was nearly impossible to come by. There were rumors of guys who had it mailed in, or of Iraqi nationals living on base who “knew someone.” But Iraqis are mostly conservative, and narcotics are generally frowned upon. The best thing we could get was liquor poured into Listerine bottles and mailed on base via care package.

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Near Mosul, 2010. Note the burning pile of human shit to the right.

Alas, no weed.

I can recall many trips sitting in the driver’s seat of an MRAP, licking my dirty fingers clean after a “vegetable omelet” MRE while bragging about how I was going to “smoke an ounce to myself the first night I got back.” Even our senior leadership lamented this with us. It would have made the stress and boredom slightly more bearable. 

My trips back home usually began in a cloud of smoke. But I could never do it for more than a couple days in a row without putting myself in danger of pissing “hot” when I got back to base. I resorted to the tactics I used when I had to give a clean urine sample at the recruitment office: I ate only low-fat foods, drank water by the gallons and regularly subjected myself to the horrors of niacin supplements to burn the THC straight out of my body. It worked, but it was exhausting.

At a certain point I realized I had to stop. I was going too far out of the way. Fortunately, that was also when synthetic marijuana was really hitting the market. The Army couldn’t test for it and it made you feel essentially like you were stoned. Everyone was doing it at the time, and my entire barracks building smelled like an opium den. It was kind of fun, considering it seemed safe, but it wasn’t the same. It tasted like inhaling incense, and though it felt vaguely like pot, it left me feeling way too paranoid — not a great feeling when you’re living close quarters with a bunch of muscle-headed freaks itching to kill something.

I stopped using synthetics and came back home for college in 2011. (It was still illegal in Washington then.) I smoked almost everyday when I was out. And somehow, it didn’t feel natural anymore. It felt like I was trying to relive my glory days as a teenager, taking bong rips from a 4-footer.

At certain times, it turned on me. One sleepless night I decided to spark a couple bowls and drift off. Instead, my mind started racing, my heart started pounding and I stayed up half the night in a self-conscious nightmare.

I love weed, and I’m happy as ever to see it have a positive influence on people’s lives and in the broader public. But it’s not really for me anymore. Although I don’t smoke as much, I still use it occasionally, and if you skip me in the rotation I will take offense. Other veterans rely heavily on weed. Some probably need it to keep themselves sane. It helps them reduce anxiety, manage pain and just chill the fuck out.

Some might see this as a negative impact on combat readiness for active duty personnel. And I understand the fear. But I can recall many a-sloppy drunk stumbling into formation for 0630 PT with disheveled uniforms. Would marijuana be any worse than alcoholism in the military? My guess is no.

There is a movement to legalize federally, and with some luck, and maybe some time, hopefully the military will get behind that.

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