Published: June 9, 2013
Civic leaders worried about retail marijuana sales in Colorado say it's a matter of perception.
They don't expect pot to pour onto local military bases when retail sales of recreational reefer start in 2014. They do expect states competing for increasingly scarce defense spending to blow smoke about Colorado's permissive policy in a bid to pull troops and programs from the state.
With massive defense cuts looming, where there's marijuana smoke, there's worry.
"It's not always good being first," said Andy Merritt, head of military affairs for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.
Military leaders - active duty and retired - have been vocal on the marijuana issue. Fort Carson's Maj. Gen. Paul LaCamera has been telling audiences and Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach that legalized pot is "against good order and discipline."
Sources at the post say they haven't seen an increase in marijuana incidents since Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana possession in November. Army-wide, the number of soldiers sent to substance abuse counseling for marijuana hit a peak of 3,019 in 2009 before falling in recent years to 2,465 in 2012.
The same is true at Peterson Air Force Base and the Air Force Academy, where officials say legalized pot has posed no particular problem.
Pot may be legal in Colorado, but in the military it's still as illicit as it was under the Reagan Administration. Troops can face up to two years in prison for possession less than an ounce of marijuana under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. More marijuana, or distributing pot, means more time behind bars.
The stiff penalties are meant to convey a simple message.
"Marijuana use is incompatible with military service," said retired Air Force Gen. Stephen Lorenz, of Colorado Springs.
Air Force Academy Col. Paul Barzler - the academy's top lawyer - said the Air Force and other services do more than other employers to keep their workplaces drug-free.
Airmen and soldiers live in a system where a random drug test can be called at any hour. A whiff of pot smoke could force a whole unit to take what some soldiers call the "whiz quiz."
And the test result alone can lead to criminal charges, Barzler said. The testing procedure is elaborate, documented and seldom fails to hold up in court, he said.
An airman from the Peterson Air Force Base office of staff judge advocate Lt. Col. Ira Perkins was ordered to give a sample Friday morning.
"It's truly random," Perkins said.
And, Perkins noted, random testing added to massive consequences for getting caught serve has a huge deterrent for troops.
So, why is the military community so worried about retail pot?
Easy availability could put more pot in the ranks, commanders say.
Skip Morgan, a Colorado Springs attorney who represents military clients at courts-martial, said the fear is valid.
"Ready availability of marijuana will certainly impact the Army and the Air Force to some extent," Morgan said.
Colorado Springs is now mulling whether to allow retail marijuana sales in the city. Mayor Steve Bach, citing military and other concerns, has pushed for a ban. The City Council, though, appears to be leaning toward allowing retail sales, because a majority of city voters backed Amendment 64 in November.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ed Anderson has been one of those pushing for a ban.
He said the ban would serve notice to Pentagon planners that Colorado Springs supports the military's mission.
The argument over marijuana and the military comes at a crucial time for Fort Carson. As part of an Army plan to shrink its ranks by 80,000 soldiers by 2020, Fort Carson could lose as many as 8,000 soldiers. The Army has also said it could decide to add 3,000 soldiers to Fort Carson by 2020 and make steeper cuts elsewhere.
Anderson says Colorado's decision to break with federal laws on the legality of marijuana could play a role in that decision and in future cuts, driven by a plan that will shrink the Pentagon's budget by $1 trillion over 10 years. Anderson explained that military leaders looking at cuts in communities search for "discriminators" - factors that put one place below another on the list.
"The discriminator could be pot," he said.
Merritt, with the Regional Business Alliance, agreed, saying defense contractors are edgy about legalized pot, too. Contractors dealing with top-secret government projects in Colorado Springs fear that their employees could lose security clearances for pot use, Merritt said.
Legalized recreational pot is one more step in more than a decade of gradually relaxed pot rules in Colorado. The state has long had legal medical marijuana, with dispensaries all over the Pikes Peak region. The November approval of Amendment 64 further relaxed the law - giving every adult in the state the right to carry up to an ounce of marijuana and paving the way for retail sales. So far, though, the evolving policies haven't led to a wave of marijuana trouble for the military.
"We've seen no uptick in our airmen's use of drugs," Perkins said of Peterson, echoing other area bases.
The worries over retail marijuana sales haven't hit Congress, where the Defense Department budget was being argued last week.
"I have not heard that concern expressed here in Washington," said Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn.