Drug Demand Reduction Program still in full swing

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- A trip to the orderly room can bring about many different outcomes. One of those might be a more clear understanding of the reasons why the Air Force has zero tolerance for drug use.

The Air Force Drug Demand Reduction Program is a DoD-mandated program that serves to do what its name says -- reduce the demand for drugs.

"The overall mission of the program is to deter and detect illegal or illicit drug use among all active duty military and civilian employees," said Aloys Ingram, drug testing program administrator manager at the 42nd Medical Group. "Random drug testing ensures a safe work environment and a healthy, fit, ready and deployable force."

The Air Force tests for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines, PCP, LSD, opiates and barbiturates by urinalysis.

According to Lt. Col. Lisa A. Schmidt, 42nd Medical Operations Squadron commander, it is very important to understand the distinction between illegal and illicit drugs, which are both detected by the tests.

She said illicit drugs are those taken without a current prescription. For example, a patient may be given a prescription for codeine and then tests positive for codeine months later without a current prescription. Also, taking a spouse's medication and testing positive for that drug in without a current prescription is an example of taking illicit drugs.

Illegal drugs include but are not limited to marijuana, hashish or hashish oil, cocaine, methamphetamine, Ecstasy and opium.

"When [positive] results come back, the individual's medical and dental records are reviewed to determine [whether there is a] valid prescription for the medication," Colonel Schmidt said. "A medical review officer notifies the person of the positive results and determines what medicines were prescribed at the time."

According to Ms. Ingram, people operating the Air Force's advanced systems must be alert and in complete control of all of their faculties. If someone is on drugs, the results can lead to catastrophe, such as loss of life, injury and millions of dollars in damage.

"Everybody is eligible to be randomly selected if they're on active duty, regardless of rank," Ms. Ingram said. "Once the person is selected for testing, my job is to notify the commander. The commander then orders the person to come over and provide the sample."

Trusted agents are used to relay the orders, and observers for the military tests are provided by first sergeants. 

"They are trained every day and held accountable," Ms. Ingram said. "They can't have any Article 15s or administrative actions on their record."

She also said it does not matter how many times a person is randomly selected - they still have to test each time.

"It could be every day, but it is still random, Ms. Ingram said. "We use computer software that is nonbiased in the selection process. Commanders also have the option to direct testing when there is suspicion of substance abuse or if someone appears to be under the influence of a substance."

Servicemembers permanently stationed at Maxwell aren't the only ones who get tested. Officer Training School students are tested as well.

"We test within 72 hours of them arriving on base," Ms. Ingram said. "That can be anywhere from 100 to 400 tests to be administered."

In the 42nd Medical Group, there are two people who administer the tests, including Ms. Ingram. At times, testing can last an entire workday.

Other groups are also tested such as the sixty geographically-separated units; however, National Guard units are not tested by the 42nd's DDRP. Ingram also specified that unit sweeps are at the request of the commander and that gate checks can be at the discretion of the wing commander.

"On the civilian side of the house, there are 160 designated positions such as firefighters and security personnel that we also test randomly," explained Ms. Ingram.

While civilians can provide a urine sample in the privacy of a bathroom stall, Airmen must be directly observed.

Airmen's urine samples are sent to a military lab at Brooks City-Base, Texas, for testing, while civilian samples are tested at other labs.

Civilians who test positive could face negative impact on their careers.

"They go through the same process the military does," Ms. Ingram said. "They're not just slapped on the wrist if their test results in a true positive. You could be let go depending on the outcome of the sometimes lengthy process."

For military members, a positive test could result in severe consequences.

"Airmen who test positive for drugs could face criminal prosecution as well as discharge from the military," said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Mark Hinton, one of the primary MRO's at the 42nd Medical Group.

In addition to their goal of having all negative test results, the 42nd Medical Group always adheres to the Air Force requirement that, at most, one percent of specimens from a base can be rejected every year.

Dr. Hinton said that the Uniform Code of Military Justice restricts military members from taking someone else's prescription medication, misusing over-the-counter medication such as cough syrup and taking prescription medication that has passed the physician's intended timeline of use. Substances such as spray paint and glue used for anything other than their intended purpose are also strictly forbidden. These types of offenses can be charged under either Article 112a or Article 92 of the UCMJ.

Based on the statistics, Dr. Hinton said the population most at risk for drug abuse is people in the ranks of E-1 through E-4.

"The population of officers here at Maxwell is above the age of 25," he said. The higher average age here may result in fewer true positives. They also do smart-testing that might include decentralized or more frequent testing.

"In fiscal 2008, we had 13 positive test results, not all of which were finally deemed positive. Some were false positives," Ms. Ingram said.

According to Dr. Hinton, using drugs can ruin lives. 

"It's not worth risking your life, livelihood, criminal prosecution, and your military career."