The Air Force anticipated only 50 cases annually when it announced a new pilot program last year that would allow some applicants who drug-tested positive for THC, the active compound in marijuana, a chance to retest and possibly enlist.
But the Air Force Recruiting Service told Military.com on Tuesday that, within the first year of the program, the service encountered triple that number -- granting 165 waivers after candidates retested and were shown to be free of THC.
That news comes as the Air Force attempts to remove barriers to service after missing its active-duty enlisted recruiting goals for the past fiscal year, which ended Sunday, by roughly 11%. It's the first time since 1999 the service hadn't reached its projected numbers.
Gen. Christopher Amrhein, the Air Force Recruiting Service commander, said during a media roundtable at the Air and Space Force Association's conference at National Harbor, Maryland, last month that the recruiting situation could have been a lot worse if it wasn't for the policy changes, such as the THC waiver, they had put in place prior to the end of the fiscal year.
"Let's make no mistake, drug usage has absolutely no place in our Air and Space Forces," Amrhein told reporters. "But allowing a second test in the recruiting process is the right thing to do. For FY23, this policy change allowed us to bring in approximately 165 additional high-quality airmen."
Marijuana, although becoming less taboo and legalized on a state-by-state basis, remains outlawed on the federal level as a Schedule I drug. While the military has zero tolerance for other Schedule I drugs such as ecstasy, heroin or methamphetamines, recruits in other service branches have received waivers for marijuana as it has grown in popularity.
The Air Force's pilot program, announced in September 2022, began seeing outpaced results from the start. While initially expecting only 50 cases per year, by December -- just three months into the program -- the service already had 43.
Air Force Recruiting Service spokeswoman Chrissy Cuttita told Military.com in an email at the time that the initial spike in numbers "could mean as more states adopt more leniency toward cannabis and THC derivatives, we anticipate a continued increase" in waiver requests.
The majority of states have legalized marijuana for medical use, recreational use or both. Only 10 states currently do not allow marijuana use in any form: Indiana, Wisconsin, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, according to MJBizDaily, a trade publication that follows the industry.
Prior to the pilot program, Air Force and Space Force applicants were barred from joining the services if they tested positive for THC on the initial test.
To be considered for the waiver, applicants have to score well on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, have graduated high school, and not have any other potential barriers to joining the service like a medical or past legal issue, according to the Air Force.
Notably, more than 50% of all new recruits come from states where marijuana is now legal, at least for medicinal use, according to a 2021 study by Rand Corp.
That study, which examined the Army specifically, found little difference in performance by recruits who enlisted with marijuana waivers.
"Recruits who make it into the U.S. Army despite low-level histories of marijuana use perform no worse, overall, than other soldiers," the Rand study said. "That should be welcome news in recruiting offices nationwide."
The waiver program arrived as the military services have struggled to find young Americans who are fit enough, healthy enough and sober enough to enter the ranks.
A Pentagon study from 2021 shows that 77% of young Americans would not qualify for military service without a waiver due to being overweight, using drugs, or having mental and physical health problems.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on X @TomNovelly.