The head of the Maine National Guard is worried that marijuana legalization could render more people ineligible for service even as a new tuition assistance program is helping recruit and retain members.

Brig. Gen. Douglas Farnham told lawmakers that the recent statewide vote to legalize recreational marijuana use for those 21 and over could “complicate” the life choices made by young people. Farnham expressed concerns that marijuana’s new status will make it “even more difficult for many to make good choices” and said lawmakers face a challenge as they work to legalize a drug that is still prohibited under federal law.

“As I told you last year, 70 percent of 17- to 24-years-olds are ineligible for military service due to education, police record, drug use, physical standards or obesity,” Farnham said during a joint session of the Maine House and Senate. “Kids are making poor choices that negatively affect their opportunities in life. So now we have legalized marijuana just to complicate those choices. Marijuana use complicates enlisting in the military, can affect the ability to get security clearances and cannot be used by military members.”

While the nation’s worsening obesity epidemic likely presents a more formidable recruitment problem for the military, the growing juxtaposition between state and federal drug laws also poses a potential challenge. Eight states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use, and medical marijuana is now allowed to varying degrees in 28 states.

All military recruits – including applicants to the Maine National Guard – are tested for drugs and answer questions about prior drug use as part of the enlistment process. Individuals who acknowledge sporadic – not habitual – use of marijuana prior to enlistment can get a waiver. And individuals whose urine tests positive for marijuana during screening are given one additional chance to test “clean” over the following 90 days or else be disqualified.

ENLISTMENT STANDARDS REVIEW

Last November, the Department of Defense announced plans to review enlistment standards “to ensure they are not unduly restrictive.” The enlistment standards under review included physical fitness and body composition, tattoos, single parents and past marijuana use.

“Some of these things we’ll never be able to compromise on – we’ll always have to maintain high standards – but at the same time, these benchmarks must be kept relevant for both today’s force and tomorrow’s, meaning we have to ensure they’re not unnecessarily restrictive,” President Obama’s Defense Secretary, Ash Carter, said at the time.

It is unclear whether that review is continuing under the Trump administration, which has signaled that it may adopt a harsher stance toward marijuana legalization.

This is the second year in a row that Farnham – who also serves as the commissioner of the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management – has expressed concerns about recruitment. During last year’s address to the Legislature, Farnham warned that those “poor choices” were further shrinking the pool of potential recruits for both the Maine National Guard and military service in general. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the military.

In 2016, Maine Army National Guard recruiters received at least 968 “leads” on potential recruits and met with 636 individuals. Of those, 92 people enlisted, meaning that roughly 9.5 percent of leads led to enlistments.

Maj. Norman Stickney, public affairs officer for the National Guard, said that figure does not include all enlistments and that the other 90.5 percent “may have been disqualified, joined another service, or simply decided not to enlist.” More specific data was not available.

Farnham did have some good news on the recruiting front for lawmakers Tuesday.

TUITION WAIVERS A POSITIVE

Last year, lawmakers passed a bill offering tuition waivers for Maine National Guard members at the state’s public colleges and universities. At the time of Farnham’s 2016 speech, the bill was stalled in the legislative process. But a year later, the general said the tuition assistance program was already yielding results as 143 members took advantage of the waivers during the fall semester.

“Despite many headwinds on the recruiting front, we saw the first uptick in a couple of years in the recruiting numbers,” Farnham said. “This program greatly assists the members of the Maine Guard accomplish personal and professional education goals. Without this program, we would not be competitive in recruiting or retention in our region.”

In an interview afterward, Farnham said that within a week of the bill’s passage two National Guard members chose to enroll in colleges in Maine rather than in New Hampshire because of the waivers. And with many recruiters nationwide still struggling, Farnham said, the tuition assistance program could be making a difference in Maine.

“I think it has been a big part,” he said.

The Maine Air National Guard and the Maine Army National Guard have more than 3,200 soldiers and airmen statewide, including more than 900 full-time members. Both guard branches serve domestically and in overseas deployments. The 101st Air Refueling Wing based at Bangor International Airport, for instance, deployed 345 personnel to 10 overseas locations last year, which is roughly one-third of the force, Farnham pointed out.

In addition, Farnham said, 10 members of the Maine National Guard’s Counter-Drug Task Force worked with state and federal law enforcement offices combating drug trafficking. Those service members provided assistance on 160 cases by conducting background investigations, criminal analysis, mobile device forensics and producing intelligence reports.

“Our service members were proud to contribute to the seizure of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, pharmaceuticals, vehicles, weapons and cash,” he said. “But most importantly, they know they are a force multiplier in law enforcement efforts to reduce the tremendous harm that heroin and other drugs are causing in every corner of the state.”

Discussing his concerns about marijuana legalization after the speech, Farnham said the applicant pool for recruits is getting smaller and smaller due, at least in part, to drug use. Farnham said it was unclear how legalization would affect the Maine National Guard, but expressed concern about the message being sent to young people.

“We’re not really sure where we are going to be, but I do know it is going to be confusing and sends mixed signals to kids about making good choices,” Farnham said. “And those choices do have long-term effects on what your opportunities are going forward.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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