07/16/2013 03:18 EDT | Updated 09/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Army frustrated over inability to push through enhanced drug screening

OTTAWA - Much to the chagrin of the country's top soldier, the Canadian Army has once again tried and failed to push through more stringent screening for illicit drugs among its troops.

Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, the soon-to-be departing commander of the army, recommended late last year that high-readiness soldiers, who are prepared to deploy either at home or abroad on short notice, be subjected more rigorous testing.

The military administers blind drug testing on a regular basis, but the system results in no disciplinary action in the event of a positive test. Troops in a variety of secure positions, and those who are definitely bound for deployment overseas, are subject to enhanced screening. The army's proposal would have expanded that to include those soldiers on standby.

But Devlin said the measure was ultimately blocked by National Defence lawyers who worried the initiative would violate the Charter of Rights and land the military in a legal battle it couldn't win.

"Soldiers want this," Devlin said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. "They all want to (take the test), and why this is so difficult; I don't get it."

The idea of enhanced screening was first proposed in 2007, at the height of the Afghan war.

In 2011, National Defence examined the idea of designating more positions throughout the military as “safety sensitive” in order to catch and punish soldiers for illegal drug use.

But that sweeping proposal was shot down, according to internal defence records, because of several legal concerns, notably that it constituted an unwarranted invasion of privacy, and a search without probable cause that could not be defended.

A second proposal, narrowed down to involve troops on standby, was also rejected, said Devlin, who retires Thursday from the army's top job.

It's a question of safety, not rights, said Devlin — especially when weapons and heavy machinery are involved.

"Soldiers want to know the guy who is driving their vehicle in the training area is drug-free, and does not have a dependency that would make them not as alert as he or she should be," he said.

Legal experts have said that the military would be well within its rights to impose more sweeping tests, as long as they are not used as a tool to single out individual soldiers for discipline.

The military insists it does not tolerate illegal drug use, and statistics have shown those in uniform have far fewer incidents of substance abuse problems when compared with the civilian population.

A survey, conducted four years ago, found that marijuana was the illegal drug of choice in the Canadian Forces.

The finding was based a massive random test of the entire military, which found almost one in 20 Forces members — or 4.7 per cent — had "recently" used illicit drugs.

The survey results were based on 1,327 mandatory urine samples taken randomly, without prior notice, among all three services.

According to the last report of the Canadian Forces provost marshal, charges of drug use have declined but possession and trafficking charges by military police increased in 2010 when compared with previous years.

During the combat mission in Kandahar, there were a handful of reports about possible illegal drug use among troops, including speculation in British newspapers during 2010 that Canadian and British soldiers were being investigated for smuggling heroin.

While investigating the report, which proved to be unsubstantiated, Canadian military police compiled a list of illicit drug incidents, copies of which were obtained under the Access to Information Act.

There were a total of 14 investigations conducted in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2010, according to the recently released records compiled by the Canadian Forces National Investigative Service.

Most of the allegations against serving members of the military were deemed hearsay. Most of those the soldiers were investigated for steroid use.

Three civilians, an Afghan employee and a French security guard were busted for drug possession in separate investigations during that time.

In addition, four marijuana plants were found growing in the common area of the provincial reconstruction base.

A briefing note, prepared for the country's overseas commander, cautioned that the list was not complete because between 2001-2005, military police did not have access to a key electronic database.