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Military quietly examined increasing illegal drug testing

Soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of Princess Patricia's Light Infantry (PPCLI) practise battle procedure on an open field in Forward Operational Base (FOB) Wolf, in Yellowknife during Exercise ARCTIC RAM.

DND\Cpl Philippe Archambault/Cpl. Philippe Archambault/Courtesy Department of National Defence

National Defence quietly examined the idea of designating more positions within the military as "safety sensitive" in order to catch and punish soldiers for illegal drug use.

Internal documents show the Canadian Army was particularly concerned. Over a four-year period, commanders in charge of troops in Canada's central and western regions lobbied separately to draw up expanded lists of jobs that would be subject to the enhanced screening.

A spokeswoman for National Defence says the director of military career administration has not made any changes, and the drug-screening program has not been expanded but is subject to continuing review.

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Concern about possible drug use among troops over the past few years extended to the top, where the chief of defence staff, now-retired general Walt Natynczyk, "stated that he is receptive to requests to designate other positions or occupations as safety sensitive," said a Nov. 14, 2011, briefing note, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The Forces considered expanding the number of jobs subject to enhanced drug screening in 2007, but was halted because it couldn't justify the invasion of privacy.

The military administer blind drug testing on a regular basis, but the system results in no disciplinary action if the results come back positive. More enhanced screening is given to troops who are in variety of secure positions, and those who deploy overseas.

A proposal from land forces central area, which apparently surfaced in May, 2011, said a series of blind tests administered to troops not deployed to Afghanistan showed a "a somewhat higher incidence of illicit drug use" and those higher results "were not seen as acceptable" by commanders.

The sweeping nature of the proposal required a detailed explanation and justification for each job, the note said. The absence of that sort of rationale doomed to failure an earlier attempt to expand enhanced testing.

An expert in military law said there are significant privacy implications involved in such a proposal, but they are more than outweighed by the public safety concerns of keeping weapons out of the hands of soldiers suffering with substance abuse problems.

Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel and a leading commentator on access to information, said the military would be within its rights to impose a higher standard test over a wider swath of its ranks.

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"People have to know, if they're going to take the paycheque and sign on the dotted line and be trusted these responsibilities, then this one of the things they'll have to do," said Mr. Drapeau. "I don't have a problem with that because public interest would come first."

A spokeswoman for defence, Lieutenant-Commander Meghan Marsaw, said the tests are already given to those in high-risk occupations, such as search-and-rescue technicians and submariners, and that the military does not tolerate illegal drug use.

"Safety is paramount," she said in an e-mail statement. "As such, there are a number of factors taken into consideration when determining whether an occupation is deemed safety sensitive.

Statistics have shown the military has far fewer incidents of drug problems when compared with the civilian population.

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