When someone in the Navy gets a DUI in San Diego, criminal defense attorneys specializing in drunk driving need to know about the tough new military policy. Today’s San Diego Union Tribune reported on this difficult post-DUI rule:
More sailors to be tested, DUI rules will get tougher
By Steve Liewer
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
August 26, 2009
Hoping to stamp out the last vestiges of a culture that tolerated drug use and celebrated binge drinking, the Navy is amping up its crackdown on substance-abusing sailors.
Its new policy increases by half the percentage of Navy personnel that must be randomly drug-tested each month and requires every sailor to be screened within 72 hours of reporting to a new command to show that all units take the campaign seriously. Service members who test positive are automatically discharged.
The revised rules also get tougher with sailors who repeatedly drink and drive. Now a second DUI offense will trigger expulsion from the Navy. Previously, the offender’s commanding officer had final discretion.
As part of the stricter program, launched July 30, the Navy is requiring more commands to appoint a senior member as an alcohol and drug control officer. That person will set up prevention programs and get treatment for those who need it.
The Navy’s goal is to reduce substance abuse by at least 25 percent in a few years, said Bill Flannery, director of the Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention program.
“Until we achieve zero, I have to assume that substance abuse is out there,” he said. “In the field of prevention, if you feel like you’ve won, you’ve lost.”
The Navy’s actions follow a revamping of the Army’s substance-abuse program six months ago. The Army guidelines mandate, among other things, random urine tests for 4 percent of soldiers in each command per week.
The timing of the Navy’s action leaves some military experts puzzled. It comes as military drug abuse has reached a post-Vietnam War low and serious alcohol-related incidents have dropped from the levels of three or four years ago.
“It seems odd that they would be tightening up when everything is fine,” said Don Guter, dean of the South Texas College of Law in Houston and a chief judge advocate general for the Navy and Marine Corps. “It doesn’t appear that it’s in response to a problem.”
Across the Navy, the annual number of positive drug tests has dropped by nearly two-thirds since 2001 — to 2,309 in fiscal year 2008. For Navy Region Southwest, which includes six states but is dominated by San Diego-based service members, the figure fell more than 50 percent — to 384.
During the same time period, DUI arrests rose about 7 percent across the Navy but dropped 15 percent in the Southwest region.
All branches of the military have battled drug abuse in their ranks since the Vietnam War, when widespread use of marijuana and harder drugs seeped into the military from the broader culture.
President Richard Nixon created the first drug urinalysis program in 1971, targeting troops returning from Vietnam. It was expanded into a militarywide, random drug screening in 1974 to identify candidates for drug treatment.
Six years later, psychologist Robert Bray completed the first of 10 surveys for the Defense Department on service members’ health, including their use of drugs and alcohol.
In that original survey, nearly 37 percent said they had used illegal drugs during the past year. The Marine Corps (48 percent) and the Navy (43 percent) recorded the highest percentages.
On May 26, 1981, a jet crash and fire on the deck of the aircraft carrier Nimitz off the coast of Florida killed 14 sailors, injured 48 others and caused about $150 million in damage. What caused a shockwave throughout the Navy, though, was news that traces of marijuana were found in the systems of six of the dead sailors, and that drugs contributed to the crash and its aftermath.
Seven months later, President Ronald Reagan’s administration announced a zero-tolerance drug policy for all military branches. All service members were subject to urinalysis, and those who failed could be punished with courts-martial and discharge.
Drug use across the military plummeted by at least two-thirds by 1985, according to Bray’s surveys, and it has continued to fall ever since.
Former Navy lawyer Joseph Casas now runs a private practice in San Diego, and he represents many sailors and Marines who have failed drug tests.
“When I get a client who has popped positive, there’s not much I can do,” he said. “The Navy is doing the right thing. They should be harsh. There’s no room for drugs in the military.”
The Navy’s battle against alcohol is much harder because drinking has been part of the service’s culture for 200 years, since the days when sea captains recruited their crews from pubs and handed out daily rations of grog.
“Heavy drinking is a tradition. It’s part of being a sailor,” said Genevieve Ames, a medical anthropologist at the Berkeley-based Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, who has studied the issue.
Alcohol once lubricated some of the Navy’s oldest ceremonies, such as the ancient “shellback” ritual for crossing the equator and the annual initiation of chief petty officers. As a result of changes in the past two decades, drinking is no longer a sanctioned part of such events.
The scandal that followed the 1991 Tailhook convention of naval aviators in Las Vegas caused a seismic change in the military’s official attitude toward sexual harassment and drinking. The Navy has been trying to change its “boys club” reputation.
“I see the Navy as a Fortune 500 company that provides people with benefits and a career,” Flannery said. “Alcohol abuse is not what we do.”
But Bray’s and Ames’ research show that drinking habits have been hard to change. In the overall military, the percentage of service members describing themselves as heavy drinkers has barely dropped — from 21 percent in 1980 to 19 percent in 2005, the latest year for Bray’s published results.
Sailors spend long and often dull stretches cooped up aboard ships, punctuated by short bouts of “liberty” in overseas ports. That contributes to binge drinking, which Ames said her research shows is epidemic in the Navy. Most sailors are 17 to 25, a period when they’re especially susceptible to alcohol abuse.
Ships’ commanders have tried to make a dent by setting up structured tours and community service projects in foreign ports. But pub-crawling remains a popular pastime at every port stop.
The key to cutting drug and alcohol abuse, Ames said, is a strong policy that’s enforced consistently. If the new rules do that, she’s in favor of them.
“We’ve got to have safety and readiness,” Ames said. “We’re at war.”
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