Skip to main content

Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Military and Drug Abuse

Drugs have been used in the military dating as far as 4,000 years ago. It has been thought to increase their combat will and limit fear. During Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, his soldiers used marijuana, which was used locally and then brought over to Europe. In the American Civil War, opium and morphine were widely used and led to “soldier’s disease”. During the Spanish Civil War, amphetamine was used to combat soldiers’ tiredness. It became common practice during the Second World to hand out various forms of amphetamines. American specialists estimated that half of their soldiers took heroin in the Vietnam war and became addicted to it. The war in Afghanistan – both with the Russian forces and the mujahedeen’s used drugs to raise the psycho- physical fitness and combat readiness of soldiers as well as to handle the brutal reality of military operations and normal barracks life (Jedrzejko). Clearly, this is a worldwide problem and not prejudice towards which side you are fighting for.

Back in 1971 during the Vietnam War, the use of heroin by American troops had reached epidemic proportions. The United States military command, the American Embassy and the South Vietnamese Government worked together to curtail the easy flow of heroin to the soldiers, punish the sellers and rehabilitate the soaring numbers of Americans who use what they and Vietnamese sellers call “scag.” At the time, the Director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs returned to Washington, alarmed at the ease with which heroin circulates and fearful of the danger to American society when the addicted returned from Vietnam, craving a drug that costs many times more in the United States than it does in Vietnam. The military was inundated with the numbers of addicted soldiers. Its officers argued the basic question of whether the military has a responsibility to go all‐out to cure the men they view as weak enough to use heroin. And the command does not want to make treatment of drug users “too attractive” out of fear that more men would turn to heroin just to get out of Vietnam. This was the perception in the 70’s. The soldiers didn’t want to be there, their living conditions were bad, they were surrounded by privileged classes, namely officers and there was use of violence; therefore, the soldiers took drugs and tried to forget. During this time, there was controversy, and many thought the military should concentrate on rehabilitation there, in Vietnam rather than waiting until the soldier returns home to the United States, as an addict. One aspect that they had to maneuver around was that the strength of the heroin in Vietnam was far greater. In the United States, the strength of heroin was about 5% purity, and the heroin strength they became addicted to in Vietnam was about 95%.

The Department of Defense put policy directives together to decrease and possibly prevent drug abuse in the military in 1970. Urinalysis testing was established, but was discontinued from 1976 until the early 1980’s due to court challenges. The Department of Defense focused its strategies on education and training showing the incompatibility of alcohol and drug abuse with military performance standards and readiness. In 1981, after multiple incidents that brought attention to the military’s drug problem, improvements in chemical testing procedures resulted in drug testing to be allowed as evidence in the military. The Navy adopted the zero tolerance of illicit drug use and shortly after, other military branches followed (NCBI). A study done about the extent of substance use in the military, examined substance use among the military from 1980 to 2005. Their findings include that illicit drug use rates dropped sharply from 1980 to 2005, while the rates of heavy alcohol use remained consistent over the years. This is most likely due to the correlation of the Department of Defense policies and urinalysis that were enforced in the military.  Their work also uncovered a relationship between rank and substance use, specifically that those enlisted at the lower ranks were 30 times more likely than senior officers to be illicit drug users and 6 times more likely to be heavy alcohol users (Bucher).

Research suggested that being deployed changes the nature (and extent) of substance use among the military due to changes in stress, availability, and acceptance of substance use. Soldiers may be subject to a wide range of stressors as part of their military work assignments and duties. In a study, soldiers who experienced high stress at work were nearly 1.4 times more likely to drink heavily, over 2.3 times more likely to use illicit drugs, and 1.7 times more likely to smoke cigarettes than those with low stress at work. They found that the stress from long deployments and multiple deployments is a predictor of high rates of substance use. Regarding, the stresses of combat itself, studies found that exposure to traumatic stressors (like combat deployment) and post-traumatic stress disorder are strong predictors of high rates of substance abuse among veterans. On average, every third investigated soldier (37%) believed that drug addiction is more common in the army (Jêdrzejczak).

This is not just happening to troops in the United States.  In 2001, the Polish Military Police confiscated over 55,000 doses of drugs in army barracks and their neighborhoods. They have found that drugs are mostly sought after by enlisted men. Reconnaissance shows that drug dealers operate in the proximity of barracks (dealing points), targeting soldiers and children of officers living in military housing estates. Those dealers often operate with the help of soldiers serving in these units, who before their service had contact with drugs or cooperated with criminals. From the establishments of the Military Police results, there is a constant high number of soldiers uncovered having drugs in quantities, indicating their distribution for profit. More and more often, criminal groups try to find ways of selling drugs in the barracks (directly to soldiers) usually by these two methods: 1) Distributing drugs through soldiers who are in contact with criminals or drug dealers during training on the range, R&R leave, weekends, or in the barracks; 2) The other method is the operation among soldiers of an informer connected to the criminal group (drug dealer), whose role is to pinpoint to interested soldiers the exact points of sale of the drugs in the proximity of the barracks (Jedrzejko).

Since the late 1990s when patients’ rights to effective pain treatment became a mainstay of medical ideology, prescription opioids have been widely prescribed and had led to markedly increased rates of both medical and nonmedical use. It has greatly impacted active-duty military personnel who have experienced high rates of opioid, misuse, and overdose. The Department of Defense Health Behavior Study suggests a significant increase in prescription (Bennett). During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military increased its use of prescription medications for the treatment of pain and other health conditions. This raised awareness that greater availability of prescription medications may lead to greater potential for abuse (Understanding Substance Use Disorders). More than 440,000 veterans received opioid painkillers in 2012. About 34% were “chronic users” who had been using opioids for more than 90 days, and almost 64% of those chronic users had a dual pain and mental health diagnosis within a year of first being prescribed opioids. Besides their original prescription usage, research found that they were being used as a form of self-medication for physical and psychological pain including PTSD. By 2010, the Department of Defense and the VHA, as well as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), adopted more stringent guidelines for prescribing opioid painkillers. Heightened national attention to increased rates of prescription opioids misuse and overdose has also led to the implementation of prescription drug monitoring programs in many places. Due to reduced access to prescription opioids from medical sources, some veterans have turned to diverted prescription opioids or have transitioned to heroin use/injection because it has become easier and less expensive to obtain in many contexts (Bennett).

Each war, with their given ease of availability, and each era in time with their implemented rules and policies, have all impacted the drug of choice. The Civil War was predominantly morphine, World War I was cocaine and heroin purchased from London pharmacists, World War II was amphetamines with the Germans using Pervitin, the United States and Britain used Benzedrine, and Japan used Philopon. Drugs used in the Vietnam war, was heroin and dextroamphetamine. In the Iraq and Afghanistan war the misuse of prescription opioid drugs were Percocet, OxyContin, Vicodin as well as amphetamines (Tackett). While the drug of choice may be different, the reasons for their misuse stem from many of the same reasons. Military life is hard. Soldiers do and deal with many traumatic, life altering events and often look for escapes – physically and/or mentally and it isn’t just our soldiers. Based on these articles, drug abuse is worldwide, and many other countries military personnel and leaders are dealing with the same dilemmas and some of the dilemmas were created by military personnel and leaders for the upper hand in war. Regardless of who, where and when, drug abuse is still prevalent in military life despite efforts to extinguish it. While progress is still being made, we can do more to help those who suffer from the effects of military life, PTSD, integration back into civilian life and reducing the stigma of mental health help, especially in soldiers. We owe the military more.



Drugs in the Polish Armed Forces Permalink:

Jedrzejko, Col.Marius. “Drugs in the Polish Armed Forces.” Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, July 2004, pp. 475–84. EBSCOhost,

Attitudes of Soldiers Taking Drugs to Military Service, Training and Discipline Permalink:

Jêdrzejczak, Marian, and Jan Blaszczyk. “Attitudes of Soldiers Taking Drugs to Military Service, Training, and Discipline.” Military Medicine, vol. 170, no. 8, Aug. 2005, pp. 691–95. EBSCOhost,

Soldiering with Substance: Substance and Steroid Use Among Military Personnel Permalink:

Bucher, Jacob. “Soldiering with Substance: Substance and Steroid Use among Military Personnel.” Journal of Drug Education, vol. 42, no. 3, Sept. 2012, pp. 267–92. EBSCOhost,

Opioid-Involved Overdose Among Male Afghanistan/Iraq-Era US Military Veterans: A multidimensional perspective.


Bennett, Alex S., et al. “Opioid-Involved Overdose Among Male Afghanistan/Iraq-Era U.S. Military Veterans: A Multidimensional Perspective.” Substance Use & Misuse, vol. 52, no. 13, Nov. 2017, pp. 1701–11. EBSCOhost,

Tackett, Brittany. “The History of Drug Use in Wartime.”, 31 Mar. 2022,

“Understanding Substance Use Disorders in the Military.” National Library of Medicine, 21 Feb. 2013,

Alvin. “G.I. Heroin Addiction Epidemic in Vietnam.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 May 1971,



By accessing or using any part of this site, you agree to not download, copy, or otherwise plagiarize its contents in any way.

Salt Lake Community College

4600 South Redwood Road Salt Lake City, UT 84123
Student Services hours: M - F : 7am -7pm
Enrollment Info: 801-957-4073 |