January 13, 2014 Updated: January 13, 2014 at 3:39 pm
The illegality of Colorado's legal marijuana could come as a surprise to a new generation of military recruits, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman fears.
Smoking pot is a bar to military service, and waivers that once allowed former users to sign up are evaporating as the military cuts its rosters in response to a shrinking budget.
Coffman, a Colorado Republican, has heard the military's concerns with the Colorado and Washington laws for the drug in his post as a member of the House Armed Services Committee and says the uniformed services won't budge on their stance.
"We're the first state to step out with legalization of marijuana, but the military isn't stepping out with us," Coffman said in a telephone interview from Washington.
The military requires recruits to divulge past drug use and undergo drug testing. A positive test, or a history of use deemed "habitual" under broad criteria results in potential recruits being shown the door.
James Culp, a Texas-based civilian attorney who defends military clients at court-martial cases nationwide, said the legality of pot under state laws won't result in military leniency.
Culp recently represented a California airman charged with drug possession for growing a pot plant legal under state law.
"The government threw the book at him," Culp said.
The U.S. Department of Justice has stayed away from prosecutions in most marijuana cases where state and federal laws conflict. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
Citing the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the services have kept up their war on the drug.
"The military has not been given instructions to reduce their enforcement of drug laws and will not change without congressional intervention," Culp said.
Coffman said Congress isn't ready to change military pot laws in the foreseeable future.
"We'll always be reevaluating all policies that pertain to recruiting, but the military sees this as a combat readiness and safety issue," said Coffman, who served in the Army and Marine Corps with more than 30 years of active and reserve duty.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ed Anderson said the conundrum will be a top topic when the pro-military Colorado 30 Group meets with the Army's recruiting boss on Friday in Colorado Springs.
The 30 Group is made up of business leaders from around the state who track military issues and lean on the government to support Colorado troops and bases.
Maj. Gen. Allen W. Batschelet will talk to recruiters through the region and agreed to meet with the organization.
Anderson said he'll breach to issue of legal pot, but he's not asking for military mercy.
"I have to admit I'm biased against marijuana," said Anderson, the former vice-commander of U.S. Northern Command.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Wes Clark said the military's intolerance of pot is why he helped lead the charge to get a ban on recreational marijuana sales in Colorado Springs.
"It comes under the heading of unintended consequences," said Clark. "It's not just the military - there are a lot of companies that drug test their new hires."
Clark wants a campaign to tell young Coloradans that legal pot can hurt their future. He said the military will stand its ground unless federal laws are changed.
"Why would we want a bunch of people using drugs in the military?" he said.
Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Terrance McWilliams, who heads military programs for the El Pomar Foundation, said legal pot has posed few challenges for the active-duty military in the Pikes Peak region.
Frequent drug tests and harsh penalties are adequate to keep soldiers and airmen away from marijuana, he said.
"All service members know what the consequences are," he said.
But budding recruits are another story.
"We need to warn the kids about the impacts of using marijuana in terms of military service," McWilliams said. "All those (enlistment) waivers are no longer there and the criteria is getting tighter and tighter. You have to be a model young citizen to join the military."
The Air Force Academy has posted a warning on its admissions website: "While past experimentation with marijuana is not necessarily disqualifying, current use detected during your medical . will be disqualifying."
Culp said the military is likely the last place in America where pot will be deemed acceptable.
"The military, in many ways, is the most conservative force in our society," he said.
"I can never see a day when it is lawful for a service member to use marijuana."