The Wavell Room
People and Leadership

Drugs, Choices and the Military

Contrary to the UK trend of cannabis being the most widely used illegal drug, cocaine is the most prevalent illegal drug taken by members of the British Army. The Ministry of Defence’s response to a Freedom of Information Act is clear; cocaine use within the British Army is the biggest cause of positive Compulsory Drug Test (CDT) results. In the last few years, ~ 60% of positive CDT results are attributed to cocaine of which nearly all result in discharge from the British Army; between 2014 – 2016 this accounts for 710 soldiers (almost the size of an Armoured Infantry Battalion). Perhaps unsurprisingly ~ 70% of those testing positive are within the 16-24 age bracket. Therefore, the majority of soldiers leaving the British Army having failed a CDT are under the age of 24 and have taken cocaine.

What is the British Army’s policy on substance misuse?

The Queen’s Regulations (QR) for the British Army state: ‘that save in exceptional cases those found to be involved in drug misuse will be discharged.’ QR does state if a number of other factors apply(1) then you may apply to retain the Serviceman or woman. The stats indicate only a small percentage of those taking cocaine are retained; this is interesting, as it leaves no room for a second chance.

What does this suggest about adolescent decision-making?

Evidence suggests adolescents do not make the best decisions. There are several factors, which surround their decision-making ability, which contribute to this problem. First, their reasoning is not as developed as adults; they frequently use abstract reasoning, counter factual reasoning and a lesser capacity for probabilistic reasoning. More developed reasoning would allow adolescents to make decisions on all aspects of the choices available to them.
Secondly, emotions play a greater role in adolescent decision-making than in adult decision-making. Emotions are important as they affect how you feel and the information you attend to when making decisions. There is a tendency for people experiencing positive emotions to underplay the likelihood of negative consequences. When people experience negative emotions they tend to think short term and forget the long-term consequences of their actions. More accentuated emotions in adolescents affect their ability to make a ‘sensible’ decision.
Lastly, maturity of judgement has a large influence on your decision-making ability. The less mature a person the more likely they are to make an irresponsible decision. Maturity during adolescence is not as developed as adults and evidence suggests boys are less mature than girls. Therefore, adolescent’s reasoning, emotions and maturity all play significant factors as to why they make poor decisions.

Is it time for a policy change?

If you believe the evidence then it would seem unfair to discharge young people from the British Army for making a poor decision. Adolescents are physiologically predisposed to make poorer decisions than adults do. This is incongruous with a policy that discharges them from the British Army on a positive CDT result without a second chance. Punishment should certainly follow for taking drugs but so should a chance to redeem their character.

(1) Under 25, under rank of Cpl, good character.


This article is designed to provoke debate, and does not represent the views of the military, or any official military position.

The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to the wavellroom through the contact form

British Army

Ian has 12 year leadership experience, both on and off operations. He believes it is time to debate the Army’s drug policy.

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Andy Tante
Andy Tante

Despite the scientifically-grounded points raised in the article, this is nonsense. JNCOs at that age are making choices and decisions on the battlefield that could get people killed. If we can’t trust them to make the right choices on something as clear cut as drug misuse, the Army is better without them making decisions at war. You don’t get second chances to make good decisions when somebody has died because of your bad one.

Jaime Scott
Jaime Scott

Based on the suggestions in this article, we should change the minimum age of entry into the Army to 25. Everybody, from pte upwards, needs to be trusted to make the right decisions – if the author has identified a cohort who are physiologically less able to do so, they shouldn’t be allowed in.

Imagine the damage being done by all those under-25 2Lt-Capts who are commanding our soldiers whilst being unable to make good decisions. Terrifying.


I like how you’ve linked this to decision making. How about adding this group: The handful of circa 40 year old, perhaps WOs, who are half pissed most of the week? They set terrible examples, make terrible decisions and have a longer term negative impact on the Bn. I’d trust one of them less – who should know better – that a young recriational drug user – who I know will sometimes do stupid stuff and I can factor it into my initial plan. Anyhoo, if we get rid of the young idiots, we need to get rid of the… Read more »

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