In late September, the Air Force and Space Force announced a new pilot program that would grant certain applicants who test positive for THC, the main psychoactive component in marijuana, a chance to retest and possibly join the ranks.
Air Force recruiting officials told Military.com that they anticipated 50 cases annually, based on previous years. But in the first three months the program was in place -- between Sept. 30 and Dec. 31, 2022 -- the Air Force Recruiting Service granted waivers to 43 applicants who tested positive for THC.
Those numbers "could mean as more states adopt more leniency toward cannabis and THC derivatives, we anticipate a continued increase" in waiver requests, Air Force Recruiting Service spokeswoman Chrissy Cuttita told Military.com in an email.
Marijuana, although becoming less of a 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 many service branches have received waivers for marijuana as it has grown in popularity.
Beth J. Asch, a senior economist at the nonprofit Rand Corp. who has researched marijuana waiver policies in the services, told Military.com that two decades of a trend towards legalization is having an impact on potential recruits.
"What we're seeing is that the number of states that have legalized marijuana either for medicinal use or recreational use has been rising since about 2000-2001," Asch said. "Not surprisingly, as more states are doing this, the number of people who are coming from states or potentially coming from states with legalized marijuana has increased."
The vast majority of states have legalized marijuana for medical use, recreational use or both. Only 11 states currently do not allow marijuana use in any form: Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, 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.
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 service struggle to find young Americans who are fit enough, healthy enough and sober enough to enter the ranks.
A Pentagon study first reported by Military.com last year 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.
Asch said it may be too early to tell whether the Air Force will see a sharper trend in THC-positive applicants, but added that it's smart of the service to look into adjusting its waiver policy.
"It certainly behooves the services to take a close look at their waiver policy and that distinction between the federal and state laws," she said.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.