Asia Crisis

Army loses "a battalion" a year to drugs

LONDON (Reuters) - The Army, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, is losing the equivalent resources of more than one battalion (500-600 soldiers) a year as a result of illegal drug use, researchers said on Friday.

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This was more than the number of fatalities and serious casualties in both conflicts and may be a reflection of combat stress, the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit said.

Analysis of figures from the Ministry of Defence by the body, which was published in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, found there had been a four-fold increase in soldiers testing positive for cocaine.

It said figures showed positive tests for illegal substances in the British Army rose to 769 in 2006 from nearly 520 in 2003.

The unit said this was the equivalent of losing more than one battalion a year to drug use. The MOD said drug taking in the army was not widespread.

But, Professor Sheila Bird, a senior scientist at the unit, warned the trend could be on rise.

“What is worrying from our study ... is the sharp increase in the proportion of soldiers testing positive for cocaine, a sharper increase than in 16-24 year olds in society at large,” she said in a statement.

“The interim period coincides with major combats in both Afghanistan and Iraq and there is natural concern that the rise in cocaine use may be a direct result of increased combat stress. This could just be the tip of the iceberg.”

An MOD spokesman rejected the assertion that drug use was rife. He said positive detection over the past four years averaged 0.77 per cent compared with almost 10 per cent in other “civilian workplaces”.

“Drug misuse is not widespread in the Armed Forces,” he said. “Drug misuse is incompatible with service life and is not tolerated. The increase in individuals testing positive for cocaine is a reflection of society as a whole.”

He said that the MOD has compulsory drug testing to “reinforce the message that drug use is unacceptable”.

Editing by Paul Majendie and Matthew Jones