ADF battles drug use in its ranks

The Australian – EDITORIAL

11:00PM  NOVEMBER 7, 2021 ”

At a time when the nation’s defence forces face our most challenging strategic environment for decades, the revelation that more than 200 Australian Defence Force personnel have been sacked in the past two years after testing positive for illegal drugs is disturbing. The main substances of choice, Ben Packham reports, are cocaine and ecstasy. And the problem is worse in the army, which terminated 140 personnel from July 2019 to June this year. The navy sacked 57 personnel for drug use in the same period, and the air force dismissed 10 aviators. Defence has a zero-tolerance policy to illegal drugs, and holds targeted and random testing, including 23,000 tests in 2019-20.

According to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data, 16 per cent of Australians aged 14 and over have illicitly used a drug in the past year. Illicit drug use has increased in the general community among people in their 40s (from 12 per cent to 16 per cent) and their 50s (from 6.7 per cent to 13 per cent) between 2001 and 2019. The use of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, inhalants, hallucinogens and ketamine have all increased. Against that background, the positive test rate for drug use within the ADF, less than 1 per cent, suggests overall drug use within the highly disciplined atmosphere of the forces is lower than in the rest of society.

Senior ADF personnel are understandably concerned about the issue. Considered in the context of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, announced by Scott Morrison on July 8, the rate of drug usage suggests an unhappy, dysfunctional culture among sections of the ADF, especially the army. In September, The Australian revealed that more than 1270 former and serving ADF members had died by suicide in the past two decades – three times the number previously reported. New AHW figures, which will be examined by the royal commission, show that 970 former servicemen and 92 former servicewomen took their own lives from 2001 to 2019. A further 211 serving ADF personnel – 199 men and 12 women – died by suicide in the same period. Navy veterans are most at risk from suicide, with 33 per 100,000 taking their own lives, compared with 31 per 100,000 army veterans and 21.7 per 100,000 of those who have served in the air force.

The government called the royal commission after strong lobbying from veterans’ groups. Drug use and suicide rates underline the need for better support for serving personnel and veterans, whose contributions are and were crucial to national security.


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