OTTAWA— The head of the Canadian Army has requested that a group soldiers who could be deployed at the drop of a hat be identified if they fail a drug test. Those troops currently remain anonymous since it’s an invasion of privacy to reveal the names in test results, a policy the army brass wants changed immediately because he says it poses a major safety concern that could result in injury or death.

“If a . . . task force member was under the influence of an illicit drug while on duty, I am convinced that this unauthorized use would create a high risk to the safety of themselves, other soldier and the civilian population,” said Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, commander of the Canadian Army.

Devlin's warning is contained in an Oct. 29 letter obtained by CTV News.

The military administers “blind” drug testing on a regular basis, but no disciplinary action can be taken if the results come back positive because they are unidentifiable. The results do not include names, but only tell commanders how many soldiers are using drugs, and their ranks and units.

Only some soldiers in selected secure positions currently go through more rigorous -- or “safety sensitive” -- drug testing.

Devlin is urging the military to add the Canadian Army’s Line of Operation 3 land task force to list of troops who need to undergo enhanced screening.

This “high readiness” task force of more than 3,000 soldiers “are preparing to deploy somewhere in the world on military operations on short notice,” he explained. They “must be alert and skilled in recognizing and dealing with both training and battlefield hazards.”

“Every member of the . . . task force carries or operates a fully functional personal and crew served weapon and is interdependent on other members of the defence team for their safety and security,” he added.

“Clear thinking and sound judgement are essential,” Devlin said.

Devlin warned: “The consequence of error during training and during (an) . . . operation could result in death or disability to members of the task force, other allied military personnel and other personnel living in the area.”

‘Borderline horrifying’

Andrew Leslie, the former head of the Canadian Army, told CTV News that it is essential to know who is high to prevent them from being deployed.

“Someone being under a mood altering or behavior modifying substance is, quite frankly, borderline horrifying,” Leslie said.

Leslie, who ran the army during the Afghanistan war, says the current policy shows the military is failing in its job to protect soldiers.

“You got enough problems with the bullets coming at you from the bad guy. The last thing you want to worry about is the person on your immediate right or left,” he said.

“It’s unacceptable. It’s unfair to them. It’s unfair to their mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Think about it: do you want your soldier’s friend or acquaintance to be under an influence of a narcotic in the middle of a firefight?”

Leslie agrees with his successor’s request that enhanced, safety sensitive drug testing should be expanded to any troops who must be ready to be deployed on short notice.

“Look, our troops are going into harms way. They’ll be involved in short-range firefights at night, with no lights . . . with live ammunition, with hundreds of other troops manoeuvring around you, different weapons systems,” he said.

“Do you really want your troops under the influence of narcotics? Behaviour modifying substances? And the obvious answer is no,” Leslie said. “The last thing you want is troops who could be under the influence of things that could modify their behaviours to the extent where tragedies could occur."

Leslie warns against complacency in changing the policy to keep soldiers suffering with substance abuse problems at home.

“At its core, it’s troop safety.”

Invasion of privacy?

A request to subject more positions within the military to enhanced drug screening in order to catch and punish soldiers for illegal drug use was halted in 2007, because the Canadian Forces couldn’t justify the invasion of privacy, according to a briefing note obtained by the Canadian Press.

Currently, the Canadian Forces must submit a detailed explanation and justification of why a “warrantless intrusion” a member’s privacy is required before any military position can be designated as safety sensitive.

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, and an expert in military law, says he believes the safety concerns outlined in Devlin’s proposal trumps any privacy concerns.

“In a democratic society if there is a reasonable test that can be done for the protection of public interests, you can do it. This is why we have a roadside breath analyzer,” he said as an example.

Drapeau says he believes there is nothing standing in the way of the Forces making this change.

“We’re going to go about it pussyfooting? And we’re not going to do this?” questioned Drapeau.

“I’m even surprised (privacy) is part of a debate. It’s as if DND is making it a debate,” he said. “It’s not legal, it’s not privacy, it’s not a question of ethics or even public opinion.

“The public would probably give DND the green light and a round of applause if they were to make that decision, so let’s get on with it.”

Concerns in Canada

Beyond the battlefield, there are also concerns at home.

Before the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, army brass asked for positive drug users to be identified but that request fell on deaf ears.

Leslie confirms to CTV News as the army commander, he was aware that soldiers in Vancouver and Whistler had not gone through safety sensitive drug testing.

“Yes, I was aware they were not tested for illicit narcotics,” Leslie said, admitting there was “an element of risk” in the policy.

The October memo by the current army head was also is blunt in his assessment of the accessibility of drugs by Canadian Forces members.

“Illicit drugs will be readily available in the civilian communities surrounding Canadian Army garrisons,” Devlin said.

“Due to the fact that Canadian Army members are unsupervised for periods of time both on and off duty, task force members will have ample opportunity to use illicit substances and the effects of unauthorized drug use would be unobserved,” he admitted.

In his letter requesting that the high-readiness task force be subjected to heightened drug testing, Devlin also explained that those troops could be “deployed to some of the top drug producing nations in the world and illicit drugs will be readily available for purchase.”

It is “very difficult to predict where drugs . . . are used by or distributed to Canadian Army members,” he said.

‘Zero tolerance’ for drug use: MacKay

Defence Minister Peter MacKay stressed there is “a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to the use of illicit drugs in the Canadian Forces.”

He says the drug testing policy is “always about striking a balance between people’s personal rights,” adding that some position within the Forces will “require a higher degree of testing.

“We are constantly reviewing policy, constantly looking to uphold the highest level of conformant,” MacKay said. “The expectation of course isthat members of the Canadian Forces do not use drugs. Period. Full stop.”