Commanders will now test Marines for alcohol and drug use during the same screening, a shift that replaces the previous Corps-wide policy requiring all members of a unit to take a breathalyzer test twice a year.

The changes, which take effect immediately, bring alcohol screening for on-duty Marines closely in line with urinalysis policy. While commanders were scheduling alcohol screenings as unique events, testing 100 percent of their unit twice each year, they'll now rely on Defense Department software that randomly selects 10 percent of their unit each month for drug — and now alcohol — testing.

The adjustments are the result of a recent revision to the Marine Corps' Alcohol Screening Program.

"We are using the same protocol as [the Drug Demand Reduction program]," said Eric Hollins, the Drug Demand Reduction program manager at Marine and Family Programs Division, in Quantico, Virginia. "The driving force is urinalysis. When the unit selects 10 percent for the monthly requirement, that same 10 percent will be administered the breathalyzer — not a different population."

The Corps has used the Defense Department's Drug Testing Program software to select Marines for urinalysis since 2000. Selecting Marines for breathalyzers using the same software will make alcohol screening less predictable and thus more effective, according to M&FP officials.

Unit commanders have been using what the Marine Corps calls the "Smart Testing" approach to screen for drugs. That means testing small populations, at random, with no advanced notice, on different days of the month, at different times, in different places.

Testing procedures for alcohol, though, "have become more predictable, and, consequently, may have become less effective," said Lt. Col. Thomas Blackwell, the Behavioral Health Deputy Branch Head at M&FP.

"The unpredictability of random urinalysis, without advance notice, occurring on multiple days throughout the month, significantly enhances the Marine Corps' ability to deter and detect drug use," he said.

Applying that same philosophy to the ASP should make efforts to deter alcohol abuse more effective, Blackwell and Hollins said. It will also reduce the time burden on units, they say, since they'll be selecting just 10 percent of a unit at random while combining alcohol and drug screenings into a single event.

How it works

Starting now, each month DoD Drug Testing Program software will generate a list of names equaling 10 percent of a unit roster. Those Marines will randomly be ordered to report for screening during which they'll give a urine sample and blow on a breathalyzer, according to the plan outlined in Marine administrative message 364/14, signed July 25.

There are some cases, however, where breathalyzer and urinalysis will not be administered together. Apart from standard random screenings, commanders have discretion to conduct what are known as "unit sweeps," during which an entire unit is ordered to undergo urinalysis on a single day.

A commander can require those in his unit identified by leadership as potential drug or alcohol abusers to submit to a test. Commanders can also require screenings if there is a new drug they want to test for, or if they need to meet hard-and-fast Defense Department requirements to administer a drug test to all Marines at least once a year, Collins said.

Breathalyzers, however, are not to be administered in conjunction with sweeps because of time limitations. Some units may only have two breathalyzer machines, Blackwell said, meaning the time requirement to test all Marines could become unreasonable.

The Alcohol Screening Program was introduced in January 2013, when commanders began administering breathalyzer to on-duty to officers and enlisted personnel, typically when they reported to work in the morning. That, officials hoped, would discourage Marines from drinking late into the night during the week.

Even a 0.01 blood alcohol content reading, eight times lower than the legal driving limit in nearly all states, would qualify as a positive test. Marines who tested positive, depending on the circumstances and the BAC, would be referred for further testing, alcohol abuse counseling or discipline from their commanders.

Hollins said a very low percentage of Marines tested positive for alcohol while on duty. Of the 76,077 Marines screened so far in 2014, just 245 tested positive. And of those 245 Marines, only 88 had a BAC at .04 or above.Most positives had only trace amounts in their system.

Even with the new ASP testing guidelines, Hollins said he does not expect any significant increase in the number of Marines testing positive for alcohol.

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