The equivalent of a battalion a year is lost to the army due to illegal drug use, a report published today will claim. It found there had been a fourfold increase in the number of soldiers testing positive for cocaine following compulsory drug testing.
The numbers testing positive for illegal substances rose from 517 individual cases in 2003 to 795 in 2005 before falling to 769 in 2006, according to figures published by the Royal United Services Institute. The cost to the armed forces, says its journal, is higher than fatalities and serious casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last year almost 800 troops were discharged after testing positive for drugs such as cocaine - the majority are privates or junior non-commissioned officers.
In a separate paper, Christianne Tipping, head of the institute's defence leadership and management programme, concludes: "The MoD needs to be sure that its near zero tolerance approach still constitutes the best way of managing the problem of drug abuse in the armed forces."
The increase in the urinary cocaine positive rate - up from 1.4 a 1,000 in 2003 to 5.7 a 1,000 in the first semester of 2007 - could just be the tip of the iceberg.
"Interpretation of the ongoing hike in soldiers' cocaine positive rate is severely handicapped by the government's refusal (on grounds of cost) to disclose key information such as whether the tests are targeted and if the pattern of weekday and weekend testing has altered," said Sheila Bird, a senior scientist with the Medical Research Council. Drug misuse was not widespread, said a MoD spokesman. "Positive rates in the army over the last four years average around 0.77%, compared with more than 7% in civilian workplace drug testing."