Growing problem in the Peace Corps with drug use among Volunteers

Thanks to Alana deJoseph (Mali 1992-94) for bringing to our attention this USA Today article on the growing problem with drug use among Peace Corps Volunteers. \

The article, published August 10, 2018 is based on the Inspector General of the Peace Corps’ August 7, 2018 Management Advisory to the Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen.

The report is a public document and is posted on the Peace Corps web site. Here is the link:

The Report begins:

“The purpose of this Office of Inspector General (OIG) report is to bring to your attention our concern that the Peace Corps’ efforts to address Volunteer drug use1 have been insufficient, and that drug use continues to pose a serious risk to the integrity and reputation of the Peace Corps as well as the health and safety of Volunteers. In order to reduce these risks, the agency should take additional measures to support country directors in resolving drug use allegations at posts, gather accurate information on drug use among Volunteers, and place greater emphasis on educating Volunteers about the impacts of drug use on their safety and the effectiveness of their service.” (page 1)

It was prompted by these statistics from the Office of the Inspector General:

“Our 2016 ‘Recurring Issues’ report2 found that during the three-year period from 2012 to 2015, OIG had opened 25 cases relating to Volunteer drug use, nearly half of which occurred in 2015.”…”From January 2015 to February 2018, at least 152 Peace Corps Volunteers separated3 from service across 26 countries in connection with drug use.4” (page 1)

I am not a lawyer, but I will share my personal opinion about the report. It is 14 pages long and while not an easy read, it is an important read.  The numbers refer to footnotes. I urge everyone to read the whole report.

For  me, two facts dominate.

  • The first is that Volunteers serve at the “pleasure of the President” and that authority is delegated down to the Director of the Peace Corps and then down to the Country Director.  A Peace Corps Volunteer is not a civil service employee and does not enjoy the protections of a civil service employee.  A Peace Corps Volunteer does not have a contract, spelling out mutual rights and responsibilities. The Country Director has the right to terminate a Volunteer’s service.
  • The second fact is Peace Corps has a zero tolerance policy for drug use.  Drug use will result in separation of service; even if the Volunteer self-refers for medical assistance with drug use.

The seriousness of the problem is demonstrated by this statement:

 “Between January 2015 and February 2018, one Volunteer died as a result of drug use, and seven were arrested by foreign law enforcement. One Volunteer was sentenced to 6 months in prison for drug trafficking,10 marking the second occasion in which a Volunteer was convicted of drug trafficking in the same country within the last five years.11” (page 3)

However, I found it hard to understand what was criminal activity as serious as drug trafficking and what might be personal  use of marijuana.  Footnote 8 on page 2 states:

“8 OIG investigators note that 68% of Volunteers separated as a result of OIG investigations since 2015 were separated after a finding of marijuana use. Other cases include the use of cocaine, LSD, heroin, hashish, hallucinogenic mushrooms, valium, codeine, and other prescription drugs.”

I could find no reference to independent legal assistance available to a Volunteer charged with drug use.  This is a description of the legal policy governing charges of drug use:

 “In cases of drug involvement, CDs are expected, under agency policy, to consult with the Peace Corps Office of General Counsel (OGC), if feasible, when considering administratively separating a Volunteer. In these cases, OGC’s role is to advise CDs on how to apply the policy, including the standard of proof necessary to administratively separate a Volunteer and how to provide accused Volunteers with a meaningful opportunity to reply to allegations.

OGC informed OIG that, since the 1970s, it has required that any finding of Volunteer involvement with drugs – which triggers the administrative separation process under MS 204 – be supported by ‘clear and convincing’ evidence.15 OGC reported that the requirements to meet the ‘clear and convincing’ standard are discussed in individual consultations with CDs and during the legal session on Volunteer misconduct at Overseas Staff Trainings (OST), as well as at annual CD conferences. To better understand how CDs apply this standard, OIG reviewed the Consideration of Administrative Separation memorandums available in DOVE for the three-year time period which is the subject of this report. In cases where Volunteers did not admit drug use, OIG found that the associated memorandums reflected inconsistent application of OGC’srequirements. A lack of uniform application suggests that not all CDs may be aware of these requirements, or that they may need additional support to consistently meet the ‘clear and convincing’ standard.” (page 6)

The Office of the Peace Corps Inspector General makes six recommendation to the Director of the Peace Corps to address these problems.  There will be an immediate response to the report by the Director and will be post that, when published.  Also, the OIG will review in 45 days the action Peace Corps has taken.


Peace Corps is concerned  about the health and safety of a Volunteer using drugs.  However, the priority, as  I see it,  is to protect the organization, not the Volunteer.  My first reaction is, of course, “That is not fair.”  However, Peace Corps is built on relationships – relationships with the host country. Drug use by a Volunteer damages his or her relationship with everyone he or she knows and works with. It also can compromise the relationships of all the other Volunteers in that country, all the Volunteers who have ever worked in that host country, and most importantly, can negatively impact host country nationals who have  ever worked with PCVs.


The Edward Mycue (Ghana 1)  article  Turtles All the Way Down reminds me of a Peace Corps Volunteer’s  unique position. Edward  recounts  the myth about one turtle holding up the whole world on his back.  How could that be possible? The explanation? It is turtles all the way down.  We are all  turtles.







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  • I was travelling in Nepal in 1968 and stopped by the Peace Corps office in Katmandu,. In large lettering was the warning that volunteers using drugs would be terminated. Nepal was a haven for Europeans seeking various drugs which were cheap and plentiful.

  • In Somalia, qat ( a great Scrabble word by the way) was chewed by Somalis on a regular basis. It was legal, although the US later considered it a narcotic substance. Volunteers chewed qat along with Somalis and to my knowledge, never got into trouble.
    At least in the 1960s, Qat was common throughout East Africa and Yemen. Perhaps some Ethiopian RPCVs of that vintage can comment on the prevalence of qat chewing in the Somali populated areas (e.g.Harar, Diredawa) and the reaction of Country Directors.

    I assume the OIG’s report relates to narcotic substances deemed by both the host country and the US as a prohibited drug.

  • Martin,

    This is what a footnote in the OIG’s report says about which drugs are prohibited:
    ” OIG investigators note that 68% of Volunteers separated as a result of OIG investigations since 2015 were separated after a finding of marijuana use. Other cases include the use of cocaine, LSD, heroin, hashish, hallucinogenic mushrooms, valium, codeine, and other prescription drugs.”

    My impression from reading the report is that all drugs, not prescribed, were prohibited and their use was cause for immediate administratice separation. Marijuana is still listed as a Class I drug by the Federal government and its use is a felony, I think, according to federal law. At the same time, many states, including Colorado, have legalized marijuana for personal use. Some Trainees/Volunteers may be from states where marijuana is legal and may find the prohibition difficult to understand.

    “Peace Corps relies strongly on information during training, including this exercise:
    The training the agency provides Volunteers on drugs is limited to a focus on compliance with policy. At multiple points through the application and training processes, the agency makes applicants and Volunteers aware of the Peace Corps’ drug policy and asks them to acknowledge that they understand it. The training process includes a mandatory session on Peace Corps policies during pre-service training with a group discussion about a hypothetical situation in which a Volunteer finds other Volunteers smoking marijuana at a party. In this situation, Volunteers are instructed to report the use of marijuana to their country director for administrative action.” page 11

    I would really like to know what you think of the report, its findings and recommendations.

  • I take this sort of report with a grain of salt. When someone asks me if I ever tried drugs, I answer, “Only the good shit.” We are a drugged out nation! During my Peace Corps service, I had the opportunity of smoking some great mota and describe it in my memoir. Drugs were rampant and no, I never, ever considered being a lowly snitch. Rats are best stepped on. My youngest son spent two years in Panama recently as a PC volunteer. From his description, things have not changed much. If this is really such a big problem, limit recruitment to religious sects which abstain from alcohol, tobacco and all stimulants. Institute a strict policy of lie-detector tests prior to service and mandatory drug testing every few weeks during service. That would be a real hoot.

  • Even as a young PC Trainee, I was humble enough to acknowledge that I come from a long line of American sinners, that life is short and no one gets out of here alive. Well, I did hear tell of one guy but he was the son of God and I don’t have those type of connections.

    • Lawrence,

      The issue is not: What should the Peace Corps Policy be on drug use during service? That has already been decided. The answer is: Peace Corps has a zero-tolerance policy on drug use. PERIOD

      The next issue is, as I see it: Is the zero tolerance for drug use policy being uniformly enforced? The answer, as I read the report, is NO. Some Volunteers are administrated separated and other Volunteers may use drugs and never be reported or terminated, according to accounts from RPCVs.

      For me, the underlying issue is the legal status of “Volunteer”. Volunteers have very little rights and little or no access to legal representation if they are accused of any violation during service. I think each Volunteer should have a contract with Peace Corps spelling out mutual rights and responsibilities.

      Finally, the Office of the Inspector General is doing its job. I hope that the report will not be used in any way to influence public opinion negatively or impact negatively the important legislation pending in the Senate. I am hoping for “dog days in August.”

      PS. I personally was appalled at the “exercise” used during training.

  • Another possibility would be to renter Uruguay and greatly expand the program in Mexico. Uruguay has legal pot. Mexico, according to the new president-elect will have.

    Or, another possibility is to ignore partisan baloney. The sky is not falling. Peace Corps Washington has too many rules and too many office people with too much time on their hands. Instead of inventing ways to send PCVs home, they should be investing more time in doing their jobs- supporting the PCVs in their work. Morale is low, very low, precisely because we have an out-of-control group of folks in D.C. with a horrible case of importantitus. Cut staff. Start repealing some of these dumb rules and spend the money on volunteers.

    Paul Theroux is a frequent panelist for the PC. Recently in a speech, he quipped that the volunteers are worth remembering for their perseverance and that their success had nothing to do with the Washington crowd. Reread Peasants Come Last. Even in-country staff is now deluged with meaningless reports.

  • Lawrence,

    Peace Corps is a federal agency. It is governed by federal law. It does not matter what drugs might be legal in a host country, as I understand it, US llaw prevails. The Peace Corps has a policy of Zero Tolerance. I have no reason to believe that the Director of the Peace Corps and anyone in Congress is looking to change that law.

  • You miss the point, Joanne. This is a red herring not that different from “All Latin Americans are rapists, murderers and members of M-13.” Some volunteers get sent home. That happens and always has. Just because some office has an official header on their stationary does not make it the Truth. I have no personal qualms with my service and how I was treated. I can say that drugs were rampant and our staff in the capital tried their very best to help us survive. My boss (a Honduran) came out to check on me every ninety days. It was a long, difficult drive and I appreciated his efforts. I was always glad to see him! No one talked about drugs (what you don’t know can’t hurt you). My feeling was that they were concentrating on helping us, not looking for reasons to get rid of us. Wouldn’t that be the tail wagging the dog?

    My best Zero Tolerance story! The Principal of my older boy’s middle school once called me at work to explain that he was to be suspended for a fight, please come immediately to pick him up. I was there within twenty minutes for a private meeting with the Principal and His Vice. They also used the Zero Tolerance argument, then asked if I had any questions.

    “Just one. Did they take the other boy to a hospital?”

    “No, no. Your son did not hit him, just picked him up and threw him in a fountain.”

    “That sounds like the other boy was smaller. Zeke, my gentle giant, would not hurt a smaller boy. You know, we also have zero tolerance at my house. I’ve explained to my boys that if someone hits them that I expect them to put that kid in the hospital. Zeke is in real trouble at home too.”

    Their mouths dropped. I continued, “You are not going to suspend my boy unless you want to see me at the next Board meeting.”

    And, of course, they did not suspend my boy. What is the saying? Rules are made to be broken.

  • Honduras in the late 70’s / early 80’s had the number one volunteer head count… and a large USAID population as well.
    I was often asked by USAID (US government employees) to get them “drugs”. Mostly cannabis. Frequently their Spanish was too poor for them to seek on their own. Illicit drugs were completely illegal for them too. They lived well, were paid well, had contracts, traveled well (diplomatic passports), all had vehicles. … while I lived quite differently … by my choice. Although I rarely felt any fear of possible reprisals (because the locals were also my friends), I did fully acknowledge the dichotomy of our lives. I was amazed how quickly – overnight – they were “evacuated” if there was a concern of a drug issue.
    We are / were all American citizens. Yet our legal status was drastically different. And that is my point. For equal transgressions, Peace Corps volunteers were essentially “thrown to the wolves” while USAID employees were fully assisted and defended.

  • Lorenzo, I hear you, brother. There were not a lot of side-boards on us in Honduras when we were there. But I took the attitude that I was in Honduras for a purpose and though I was threatened with being kicked out by the CD and the Training Director (not for drug use), I wanted to stay and do my job. Since I heard that the Honduran cops viewed use of weed as a big bust (just as the cops did where I went to college in Utah), I decided that a 2 year hiatus from cannabis was not a big deal. I remember being at a party where a joint was being passed around – I declined and the next guy that took it and took a toke turned to pass it on and found that one of the Assoc. Directors was standing there. Adios, hermano! I would recommend to a new PCV that laying off the weed and enjoying cerveza and guaro is going to keep you in country longer

  • Alcohol is an addictive drug, which includes beer. Alcohol kills millions; and by not making that distinction
    clear (label warnings for neuropathy, etc.) we have allowed governments to make tax money off its use and to criminalize its less addictive less dangerous competition. O.K. to be drunk but illegal to get high (serotonin) from a flower bud. Thanks to the younger generation, not only in the U.S., alcohol use is on the decline, as is the decriminalization of its competition (Uruguay). By failing to push back we, the people, allowed our government (Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush) to ruin the lives of millions of Americans for using an organic stress-reducer instead of the highly addictive outrageously dangerous stress-reducer of alcohol that will literally knock you out. Been there done that. Don’t kid yourself about equating the two…Get over accepting the propaganda that alcohol, a drug, is O.K. and a flower bud isn’t. We, the people, have been conned. Time to be real because being unreal allows the con and con artists to flourish. Do you not wonder why more of our tax money is spent on criminalization than on education.
    Get Youth To It…
    Thomas Pleasure
    Peru 1964-1966

  • Correct! Add it to that screening lie-detector test and the once o week testing for all PCVs. This program is only for those running for sainthood. Get rid of the rest. Recruit the president to use his tweets to embarrass the slackers too. Drink? Smoke a doobie? Heavens.

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