Amnesty for Benzo-Abusing US Troops

By Jennifer Matesa 02/06/12

Troops who abuse prescription drugs have 90 days to self-refer before new testing is introduced. Vets also need more help.

Pill-popping troops should seek help now.
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If you’re in the armed forces and you have a problem with Vicodin or benzos, now’s your chance to get help without censure. The Defense Department warned last week that they’ll begin screening for these two additional drugs in 90 days—for the first time in 40 years of drug-testing. That gives an unprecedented three-month amnesty to troops who may have problems with these drugs. The DOD already screens for codeine and morphine. Now troops who abuse the painkiller hydrocodone (the active ingredient in Vicodin) and popular anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax, Valium or Ativan are encouraged to seek treatment. “Don’t get caught in a drug test,” says Joe Angello, the DOD’s director of operational readiness and safety. “There [are] no penalties, there’s no stigma, attached to [self-referral for medical] help here.”

Angello also reportedly claims that drug abuse among service members is “significantly lower” than in the general population; this may be true. But veterans are more prone to addiction problems than other civilians, according to Andrew J. Saxon, MD. He's a VA-affiliated research psychiatrist who works at VA Puget Sound Health Care System and directs the Addiction Psychiatry Residency Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. His research shows that recently returning combat veterans drink and smoke significantly more than the general population. It also details increasing use of opioids by veterans: addiction develops in 2% of veterans receiving painkillers for chronic pain, predicted by the co-presence of a psychiatric problem. “The levels of illicit drug-use reported in the literature are very, very low for active-duty military,” Saxon tells The Fix. “That doesn’t say anything about what happens after they leave military service. Right now the policy is, if you’re in the military and you have an alcohol problem, you’ll get treatment. But if you have an illegal drug problem, you’ll probably be dishonorably discharged.” He adds that that includes troops who obtain legal drugs—like Vicodin and Xanax—illegally.

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.