Army winds down its drug testing

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 06/03/2014

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The New Zealand Army is quietly winding down drug testing among the ranks, despite recent calls to expand it.

It comes as fresh figures show more Kiwis are being checked for drug use at work than at any time in the past.

Figures provided under the Official Information Act show more than 220 New Zealand Defence Force staff have been caught taking drugs since 2008.

More than three-quarters of them were in the army, and most had been smoking cannabis. A handful also had methamphetamine and opiates, such as heroin, in their system.

The Defence Force has trumpeted a big decline in positive drug test results in the past five years, saying its staff were significantly less likely to be involved in drug-taking than the general public.

However, during the same period, there was also a steep drop in the number of army staff being tested. It was they who had previously accounted for the bulk of positive results.

Tests for existing army staff dropped from more than 3200 in 2008 to just 355 last year. Fewer checks have corresponded with fewer staff testing positive.

It also appeared that people who were caught taking drugs rarely lost their jobs, with only three known dismissals in the navy and air force related to drug use. The army did not supply figure of dismissed drug-takers, but a handful had tested positive more than once.

It comes after a coroner recommended in December that drug testing in the Defence Force be expanded after a Manawatu military man died from a cocktail of steroids and body-building supplements.

The Defence Force took more than six months to supply any drug-testing figures to The Dominion Post. This week, it declined to allow anyone to be interviewed on the results. It did not respond to written questions before publication, and a spokeswoman said it needed more time to explain why drug testing in the army had plummeted.

In 2008, the Defence Force said it was ramping up drug testing after a group of six soldiers were sent home from Afghanistan for regular sessions smoking hashish.

The report into the incidents also suggested that drug use could be a wider problem among troops in Afghanistan, which is one of the world's main drug-producing countries. A Defence Force spokeswoman could not say this week how many troops stationed in Afghanistan had tested positive for drugs.

Chris Hilson, chief executive of the New Zealand Drug Testing Agency, said it was unusual for a workplace to cut its drug testing once it had started.

Last year, the agency conducted a record 81,000 drug tests, up 20 per cent on 2012. Much of the growth came from companies that already had pre-employment testing and were adding random tests for existing staff.

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Companies that tested ranged from mining firms to retirement homes, he said.

- The Dominion Post

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