Four-fold increase in UK soldiers testing positive for cocaine

The British Army is losing the equivalent of one battalion a year as a result of illegal drug-use, more than the number of fatalities and serious casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Research into Compulsory Drugs Testing (CDT) of UK service personnel has identified a rise in positive tests for illegal substances in the British Army from 517 individual cases in 2003, to 795 in 2005 (and 769 in 2006), and also a 4-fold increase in soldiers testing positive for the class-A drug cocaine. The study is published today in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Professor Sheila Bird, senior scientist at the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit said: “What is worrying from our study of compulsory drug testing (CDT) figures for the armed services is the sharp increase in the proportion of soldiers testing positive for cocaine, a sharper increase than in 16-24 year olds in society at large.”

“It’s vital that we find out what lies behind this the rise in positive tests for cocaine from 1.4 per thousand in 2003 to 4 per thousand in early 2006 and 5.7 per thousand in early 2007. The interim period coincides with major combats in both Afghanistan and Iraq and there is natural concern that the rise in cocaine use may be a direct result of increased combat stress.

“We need to know more about how the tests were conducted and whether methods have remained the same over that period to assess the scale of the problem. However, our work looking at CDT in prisons has shown that testing can under-estimate the number of sporadic users dramatically. This could just be the tip of the iceberg.”

Other factors may be playing a part in increased levels of positive tests. A change in the sensitivity of the tests used or in the weekdays of testing could be to blame. Soldiers could be ‘switching’ from cannabis to cocaine in a perverse attempt to avoid testing positive as cocaine disappears from the system in just 2-3 days. This last theory seems unlikely, because irrational: ecstasy would be a much less harmful option as a 'drug of evasion'.

“Even if the rise could be accounted for in other ways, this would still leave us with high numbers of soldiers testing positive for cocaine, with potentially even higher numbers using the drug sporadically. Our duty of care towards these young men and women fighting in very difficult conditions means we must get to the bottom of their drugs use and the reasons behind it,” continues Professor Bird.

Traces of cocaine are found in urine for only two to three days after use. By contrast, cannabis remains in urine for two to three weeks. In 2003, cannabis accounted for half (50 per cent) of all CDT positive tests, whereas cocaine was 22 per cent. By 2006, around 50 per cent of all positive tests registered cocaine use, with cannabis around 30 per cent.

Professor Bird’s analysis counters claims that this trend is a ‘reflection of society more generally’, when placed in societal context alongside the declared ‘drug use in the last month’ of respondents to the British Crime Survey. The self-reported survey of some 6000 respondents aged between 16-24 years notes cocaine was 28 per 1000 in 2003/04, 30 per 1000 2005/06, and 32 per 1000 in 2006/07. Military cocaine-positive rates, 20 times lower in 2003, were only 6 times lower in 2006/07.

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