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Drug Use in the Military - How Safe is it?

We are all aware that the Canadian Armed Forces is committed to an impairment free workforce, and as a result, prohibits the use of drugs which can impair normal psychological or physical functioning. There are many reasons for this, but one reason many people don’t necessarily think of is the safety factor. We all know that drugs such as cocaine and heroin are very harmful – this is, after all, why they were made illegal in the first place – but how many of us know what kind of dangers these substances pose for CAF members? The following article outlines the operational dangers posed by cocaine, marijuana, and LSD (acid).


Marijuana can lead to exercise-induced angina, which means that you could get significant chest pain (that could easily be confused with a heart attack) when your heart rate goes up. Given that, in a combat situation, you have to be able to withstand extreme physical exertion at any time, feeling like you is having a heart attack whenever you have to run is a serious problem. Furthermore, with regular use, marijuana, like tobacco, can reduce lung capacity and cause breathing difficulties. Again, this is probably something you want to avoid in a combat situation!


LSD, aka acid, is classified as a hallucinogenic drug, so it’s no surprise that one of the major features of LSD usage is visual illusions/hallucinations. If this weren’t bad enough, it can also cause tremors. Now, imagine yourself in a combat situation and someone in your group has taken LSD. You now have a person who can’t accurately control their body movements (e.g., their trigger finger) and who is seeing things that aren’t there! How safe do you feel? Also, unlike most other drugs, the effects of the drug outlast its time in your system – the half-life of LSD (the time it takes for half of what you’ve ingested to be metabolized) is 3 hours, but the effects can last for 16-18 hours.


The most significant danger that cocaine poses, from an operational standpoint, is that it raises the user’s body temperature. Now, if you’re in Winnipeg in January and it’s -40oC, this may not seem like such a bad thing. However, even when the outside temperature is very low, it is still very dangerous for your body temperature to rise as higher internal temperatures cause your organs to start shutting down. If it rises more than a few degrees, your brain can stop functioning and be unable to regulate such things as breathing and heartbeat. This can be fatal. Now, those are dangers when it isn’t even that hot outside. Imagine how much more dangerous it is when it’s really hot outside, like, say, in Afghanistan in the summer. In this case, your internal temperature is probably already slightly above normal and there is already a significant risk of overheating. Using cocaine on top of this could prove to be fatal.

As you can see, the use of drugs in an operational context is extremely dangerous not only for the user, but their fellow CAF members as well. Always think, WHO’S GOT YOUR BACK?

For further information on the effects of drug use on the body, please refer to any textbook on internal medicine, such as Harrison’s (1998) Principles of Internal Medicine, 14Ed.

For more information on this and other topics, contact your local Health Promotion Office.

Cannabis, The most widely used illegal drug

Get the facts!

  • Cannabis is classified under two drug categories: Depressants and Hallucinogens.
  • Cannabis is used in three forms. It is used as marijuana (the dried leaf of the plant), hashish and hash oil (both from the plant resin).
  • Marijuana and hashish are usually smoked, while hash oil is usually added to marijuana or tobacco cigarettes.
  • The chemical ingredient in cannabis that produces the high is called THC (delta-9-tetrahydro-cannabinol). New growing methods have been developed in recent years and the percentage of THC found in cannabis has increased making it even stronger.

Short terms effects:

  • Feeling relaxed and free. People sometimes experience a heightened sense of smell and vision. Normally these effects last two to four hours.
  • Cannabis makes users clumsier and significantly slows their reaction times therefore adversely affecting operational readiness and safety. Driving and operating machinery while stoned is not safe, especially if cannabis is combined with other drugs, including alcohol.
  • When cannabis enters the brain the short-term effects include memory problems, distorted perception, difficulty thinking, impaired concentration, loss of coordination and interference with normal muscle functioning.
  • While high on cannabis, many people will lose some of their ability to learn and will forget things and have trouble concentrating.
  • Some users feel severe anxiety and high doses can cause panic attacks, fearful, suspicious feelings (paranoia) and temporary psychosis.
  • These effects can persist long after the initial high has worn off. In fact, they may last 24 hours or more.

Long-term effects:

  • Cannabis smoke contains cancer-producing chemicals that damage the lungs and can lead to chronic coughing, lung infections and cancer of the lungs, neck and head.
  • Regular/heavy use of cannabis is associated with decreased manual dexterity and a decreased ability to incorporate feedback to correct incorrect responses. For example, when playing a game, cannabis users will have greater difficulty changing their strategy based on what their opponents are doing.
  • Many long-term cannabis users develop problems with short-term memory, concentration.

Cannabis Use in the military

The Canadian Armed Forces has a ZERO TOLERANCE policy regarding the use of cannabis and other illegal drugs.

For more information on this and other topics, contact your local Health Promotion Office.

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Marijuana - More Harmful Than You Think!

Marijuana is the most commonly-used illicit drug in Canada, both in civilian and military populations. However, many people feel that this is a relatively harmless drug, and so getting high every now and again is not a big deal. But is this true? Is marijuana use as harmless as it seems? The truth is that marijuana has many short-and long-term effects that many people aren't aware of, and these effects can lead to very dangerous situations, especially in the military, where we use firearms and heavy machinery on a daily basis. For example:

  • Studies have shown that smoking marijuana decreases a pilot's performance on tasks requiring them to maintain flying patterns (e.g., altitude, heading, etc.), increases the number of major errors they make (errors that could have lethal consequences, such as forgetting to put landing gear down), and decreases their ability to land an aircraft (pilots often missed the centre of the runway by 30-70 feet - very dangerous when landing large aircraft on smaller, remote airfields).
  • Because it is a depressant, marijuana increases sleepiness, which is problem if you're on guard duty!
  • Marijuana can cause dry mouth and throat. In a hot, dry area like Afghanistan, this can make a bad situation (i.e., you're already thirsty and dehydrated) worse and lead to decreased ability to focus on your task and your surroundings.
  • The hallucinogenic effects of marijuana can lead to paranoia, hallucinations, intense anxiety and panic attacks. This makes the user dangerous to other members as well, especially in tense situations such as would be encountered in war. It may also interfere with the user's ability to tell friend from foe.
  • The general depressant effects of marijuana result in slowed reaction time, loss of motor coordination, decreased problem solving ability, and impaired memory and judgment. All of these are potentially fatal impairments in combat situations.

The above are short-term effects that can last up to 24 hours after using marijuana or other cannabis products (e.g., hashish, hashish oil). But there are serious long-term effects, too. Marijuana smoke, like tobacco smoke, contains many carcinogens (cancer-producing chemicals) that with repeated use can result in cancers of the lung, head, and neck. Regular/long-term use of marijuana is also associated with decreased manual dexterity and decreased ability to incorporate feedback into actions. This is a potentially deadly deficiency in combat situations or when other complex tasks are required.

Finally, aside from the effects that marijuana has on the user, the marijuana cigarette itself is a danger to members' safety: As with tobacco cigarettes, the joint leaves a heat signature, a light signature, and a presence signature (the butt of the cigarette as litter indicates your presence or recent presence) - all of which endanger not only the user, but all those around him/her.So if you find yourself thinking about 'smoking up,' ponder the resultant dangers to yourself and your comrades… Or think about how you'd feel if you knew that one of your comrades was using marijuana and putting you in danger. Always keep in mind, WHO'S GOT YOUR BACK?

For more information on this and other topics, contact your local Health Promotion Office.