Substance Abuse in the Coast Guard

Last Updated: March 5, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Key Takeaways

  • The US Coast Guard faces challenges with substance use, including alcohol, prescription medications, and illicit drugs.
  • Substance use policies have evolved, with the Military Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addiction Program aiming to address these issues comprehensively.
  • Historically, the Coast Guard has been actively involved in drug interdiction efforts and has adapted its approach to substance use over time.
  • Substance use among Coast Guard personnel can negatively affect health, performance, and personal relationships.
  • The Coast Guard’s zero-tolerance policies include rigorous drug testing procedures and strict consequences for violations.
  • Support resources for personnel include the Behavioral Health Employee Assistance Program and the Substance Abuse Prevention Program.
  • Prevention strategies in the Coast Guard include education, policy revisions, and enforcement of minimum drinking age laws.
  • Success in recovery from substance use is supported by the Coast Guard’s comprehensive approach and resources.

Understanding Substance Abuse in the Coast Guard

The US Coast Guard, like other branches of the military, confronts challenges related to substance use among its ranks. Substance use within the Coast Guard includes the misuse of alcohol, prescription medications, and illicit drugs. Recent policies, such as the Military Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addiction Program, have been implemented to address and mitigate these issues, suggesting a proactive stance by the Coast Guard to combat substance use.

Alcohol misuse is particularly notable within military culture, with service members drinking more frequently than many other professions. Reports indicate that a significant percentage of service members perceive the military environment as supportive of drinking, which could contribute to higher rates of alcohol consumption. The prevalence of alcohol use is a concern, as it can lead to a range of negative outcomes affecting health, performance, and personal relationships.

The Coast Guard has established comprehensive substance use prevention programs and policies in response to these concerns. These initiatives aim to provide clear guidance on prevention, facilitate access to treatment, and promote recovery while also emphasizing the potential career impact of substance-related incidents. The inclusion of the Reserve component in recent policy amendments underscores the Coast Guard’s commitment to addressing substance use across all service member demographics.

While the Coast Guard continues its traditional missions, the organization also recognizes the need to adapt its strategies to confront the evolving challenge of substance use. This includes ongoing efforts to refine policies and provide resources that support the health and well-being of its personnel.

Evolution of Substance Abuse in the US Coast Guard

The US Coast Guard, like all branches of the military, has a history that includes the challenge of substance use among its ranks. This section traces the origins and evolution of substance use within the Coast Guard, providing a historical perspective on this critical issue. While the prevalence of illicit drug use in the armed forces is generally lower than in the civilian population, the misuse of prescription medications such as sedatives and opioid painkillers has been noted as a concern within the Coast Guard, albeit less so than in other service branches.

Historical records indicate that the Coast Guard has been actively involved in drug interdiction efforts for decades. For instance, the 1970s saw the Coast Guard become the lead agency for maritime drug interdiction. This role expanded over time, particularly during the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s and the surge in drug culture. By the 1990s, the Coast Guard had initiated surge operations to combat drug trafficking, reflecting an ongoing commitment to addressing not only the use but also the supply of illicit substances.

In recent years, the Coast Guard has continued to adapt its approach to substance use with the introduction of the Military Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addiction Program, which replaced the former Military Drug and Alcohol Policy. This evolution in policy and practice underscores the Coast Guard’s recognition of substance use as a complex issue requiring comprehensive strategies that include prevention, treatment, and enforcement.

Substance Abuse Among Coast Guard Personnel During the Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, substance use became a significant issue among US military personnel, including those serving in the Coast Guard. The war’s stress, combined with the availability of illicit drugs at low costs, contributed to a rise in drug use. A study led by sociologist Lee N. Robins found that soldiers who became addicted to heroin in Vietnam were more likely to have pre-existing social problems and engaged in the use of marijuana, alcohol, amphetamines, and other substances while deployed. Research indicates that the need for self-medication, escape, and indulgence in stressful combat situations, alongside the relaxation of drug use taboos in the United States and profiteering by South Vietnamese officials, exacerbated the issue.

Drug use during this period was not limited to heroin; marijuana and amphetamines were also commonly used. The Coast Guard, involved in interdiction and combat missions, was not immune to these challenges. The widespread availability and use of drugs like heroin posed significant concerns for military leadership, influencing policy and prompting the initiation of drug testing programs and substance use prevention measures. Historical records from the Department of Defense highlight the prevalence of marijuana and heroin use during this era, underscoring the need for a comprehensive understanding of substance use within military ranks, including the Coast Guard.

Current State of Substance Abuse in the US Coast Guard

The US Coast Guard is actively engaged in combating substance use, both within its ranks and in its mission to intercept illegal narcotics at sea. Recent reports indicate the Coast Guard’s continued efforts to prevent millions of dollars worth of illicit drugs from entering the United States. For instance, operations led to the seizure of over $55 million in narcotics and the arrest of suspected traffickers, highlighting the ongoing battle against drug smuggling in international waters of the Caribbean Sea. Interdictions by cutters like the Margaret Norvell and Resolute are a testament to the Coast Guard’s vigilance.

While the Coast Guard’s external efforts are clear, the internal state of substance use among its personnel is a matter of concern and focus. The Coast Guard has implemented the Military Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addiction Program, a revision of the former Military Drug and Alcohol Policy, to address substance misuse within its service. This program aims to provide comprehensive support and enforce strict policies to maintain operational readiness and the well-being of its members. Alcohol remains a significant substance of abuse, with its misuse in the military costing the Department of Defense over $600 million annually in lost work time and medical expenses. The Coast Guard’s proactive stance on substance use prevention and treatment is crucial for the health of its personnel and the efficiency of its operations.

Consequences of Substance Abuse Among Coast Guard Personnel

Substance use within the Coast Guard poses a significant threat to its personnel’s readiness and optimal performance. The physical and mental health repercussions are profound, with alcohol misuse being notably higher among the Armed Forces compared to the civilian population. Common signs of alcohol misuse among Coast Guard members may include strong cravings, medical issues like high blood pressure, gastrointestinal effects, blackouts, and memory loss. These symptoms can lead to the neglect of personal and professional responsibilities, potentially compromising safety and mission effectiveness.

Substance use can also have severe impacts on mental health, contributing to a public health crisis that includes depression and suicide. The Coast Guard has recognized this and implemented policies such as the Military Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addiction Program to address and mitigate these issues. However, despite the availability of treatment options and support services, stigma and perceived career harm associated with seeking help remain significant barriers. The Coast Guard must continue to evolve its policies and programs to effectively support its members, encourage help-seeking behavior, and reduce the stigma associated with treatment.

Moreover, the professional performance of Coast Guard personnel affected by substance use is often hindered, leading to potential separations from service for those involved in drug or alcohol incidents. The personal relationships of these individuals are also at risk, as substance use can strain family dynamics and social connections, further exacerbating the challenges to recovery and rehabilitation.

Coast Guard Substance Abuse Policies and Consequences

The United States Coast Guard maintains a strict stance on substance use, reflecting its commitment to the safety and well-being of its personnel and the integrity of its operations. The organization’s policies are outlined in various documents, including the Coast Guard Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Manual and the Military Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addiction Program. These policies articulate a zero-tolerance approach to illicit drug use, misuse of over-the-counter products, and other forms of substance misuse.

Coast Guard personnel are subject to rigorous drug testing procedures as part of their commitment to maintaining a drug-free military force. The Department of Transportation’s Drug and Alcohol Testing Regulation, 49 CFR Part 40, is a guiding framework for these procedures, which do not recognize medical marijuana under state law as a valid medical explanation for a positive drug test result. Violations of these policies can lead to severe consequences, including administrative actions and potential discharge from service.

Recent updates to the Coast Guard’s substance use policies have expanded the scope of zero tolerance and introduced comprehensive revisions, emphasizing the need for all members and commands to familiarize themselves with the new guidelines. These updates reflect the evolving landscape of substance use challenges, including the emergence of designer drugs and behavioral addictions. The Coast Guard’s low-risk drinking guidelines further illustrate the organization’s proactive stance on preventing substance use, setting clear limits for alcohol consumption in various situations.

The Coast Guard provides access to resources and support services for effective substance use case management for those seeking assistance. These are available through the Substance Abuse Program, regional Work-Life Staff, and other designated contacts within the organization.

Tracing the Evolution of Coast Guard Substance Abuse Policies

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) has experienced a dynamic shift in its approach to managing substance use among its ranks. The recent overhaul of policies culminated in the introduction of the Military Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addiction Program, a significant departure from the former Military Drug and Alcohol Policy. This new program, detailed in the COMMANDANT INSTRUCTION 1000.10B, reflects a modernized and comprehensive approach to substance use, emphasizing the importance of behavioral health and recovery.

Historically, the USCG, like other military branches, has faced challenges with substance use, particularly during periods of conflict such as the Vietnam War. The evolution of policies over time has been influenced by societal changes, advancements in understanding addiction, and a need to maintain operational readiness and personnel well-being. The recent policy revisions aim to provide clearer guidance on prevention, treatment, and the recovery process while also considering the career impact of substance-related incidents.

Despite these advancements, the Coast Guard continues to grapple with the consequences of substance use, as evidenced by the recent offloading of $55 million worth of illicit narcotics by the USCGC Resolute. The ongoing battle against drug trafficking highlights the importance of stringent substance use policies within the service. The Coast Guard’s budgetary and strategic priorities, as outlined in their 2024 Budget Overview, indicate a commitment to addressing these challenges head-on through investment in personnel and resources.

Substance Abuse Support Resources for Coast Guard Personnel

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) offers a range of support resources for personnel struggling with substance use, recognizing the unique pressures faced by service members. The Behavioral Health Employee Assistance Program provides counseling and support for substance use, stress management, and interpersonal conflicts. This program is available to civilians and Coast Guard service members.

In times of crisis, the USCG provides access to several hotlines, including the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the Military Crisis Line, offering confidential support 24/7. The Coast Guard Support (CG SUPRT) Program, formerly the Employee Assistance Program, also provides a toll-free number for assistance.

Furthermore, the Coast Guard has introduced the Military Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addiction Program, which is a comprehensive revision of the former Military Drug and Alcohol Policy. This new policy aims to address substance use and behavioral addictions more effectively among service members.

Strategies for Preventing Substance Abuse in the Coast Guard

The United States Coast Guard has implemented robust strategies and programs to prevent substance use among its personnel. A key component is the Military Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addiction Program, which is a comprehensive overhaul of the former Military Drug and Alcohol Policy. This initiative underscores the Coast Guard’s commitment to maintaining operational readiness and ensuring the well-being of its members.

Another significant aspect of the Coast Guard’s preventive measures is the Substance Abuse Prevention Program (SAPP), managed by a dedicated Program Manager who coordinates substance use training and educational curricula development. These efforts are further supported by the Coast Guard Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Manual, which outlines detailed policies applicable to all active duty and reserve members on orders for 30 days or more.

Enforcement of a minimum drinking age of 21 for all active duty members, as established by the Military Drug and Alcohol Policy, represents a punitive general order aimed at curbing underage drinking. Additionally, the Coast Guard offers alcohol screening services through Substance Abuse Prevention Specialists and Unit Command Drug and Alcohol Representatives (CDARs), who facilitate access to resources for active duty personnel.

Overall, the Coast Guard’s multi-faceted approach to substance use prevention encompasses policy revisions, education, strict enforcement of drinking age laws, and accessible screening and referral services, all of which contribute to a culture of responsibility and health within the ranks.

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If you’re a military veteran seeking addiction treatment, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. We are a part of the VA Community Care Network, and we offer a trauma-informed program designed for veterans and first responders. Contact a Veteran Advocate today to learn more or to get started with treatment. 

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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