The American flag flies next to the dome of the U.S. Capitol building during rehearsal for the 2017 Inaugural Ceremonies in Washington on Jan. 15, 2017. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

By Joe Davidson, Columnist


The Peace Corps has a drug problem.

It’s a problem related to an increasingly outdated view of marijuana but significant enough to the agency’s Office of Inspector General that it warns of a “serious risk to the integrity and reputation of the Peace Corps as well as the health and safety of Volunteers.”

The warning, in a management advisory report from Inspector General Kathy A. Buller, said “efforts to address Volunteer drug use have been insufficient.”

The number of drug cases opened by the inspector general jumped four times from fiscal 2013 to 2015. Drug use led to at least 152 volunteers, working in 26 countries, leaving the Peace Corps between January 2015 and February 2018.

To demonstrate the impact, Buller compared it to losing more than a century of service.

“As a result of these separations, students, counterpart agencies, host family members, and other community members lost 117 potential years of service and support from the Peace Corps,” Buller wrote Aug. 7 to Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen and Chief Compliance Officer Anne Hughes. “For context, this loss would be equivalent to the Volunteer service years lost if Peace Corps had decided to cease all operations at a small post such as Belize or Tonga over the same 3-year period.”

The service lost is more valuable than the money, which amounts to almost a half-million dollars “in taxpayer and host country partner resources wasted.”

More importantly, “at posts found to have widespread drug use, large portions of the Volunteer population may be separated, resulting in an especially acute” problems for those locations.

In one agricultural post, 52 percent of the Peace Corps volunteers were “separated,” meaning they quit or were fired, in connection with a single drug investigation.

During the review period, one volunteer died because of drug use and seven were arrested by foreign authorities. One person was sentenced to six months (though less than a month was served), “marking the second occasion in which a Volunteer was convicted of drug trafficking in the same country within the last five years,” according to the report. Buller would not reveal which countries were involved in the cases.

The drug primarily referenced is marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law. Cannabis is legally available for medicinal purposes in the District, 31 states, Guam and Puerto Rico, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It is permitted for recreational use in nine states and the District.

America’s changing attitude toward marijuana apparently is of no matter to the Peace Corps. It would not address questions about the report or medical marijuana but did issue a statement saying that the “Peace Corps has a zero tolerance drug use policy for Volunteers.” Medical marijuana was not within the scope of Buller’s report. Any drug policy determination, she said by phone, is up to the agency.

The policy cited in the report says: “The Peace Corps enforces this strict policy not only because the cultivation, manufacture, and traffic in and use of drugs, including marijuana, is illegal in most countries; but also because drug involvement by V/Ts (volunteer/trainee) in any country could seriously jeopardize the entire Peace Corps program, as well as the safety and health of the V/Ts.”

The policy calls for drug users to be “separated immediately” and says that those separated “will not be considered for a transfer to another program or reinstatement regardless of the quality of their service.”

Turning yourself in provides no leniency. “Any self-referral,” the report declared, “will ultimately result in the termination of their Peace Corps service.”

The inspector general made six recommendations, including that the agency review the evidentiary standard required to fire a volunteer. The agency’s statement said it is reviewing the report and will respond to the recommendations.

“While Volunteer and Staff misconduct is generally decided by a ‘preponderance of evidence,’ ” the report said, “the standard used for demonstrating ‘involvement with drugs’ is ‘clear and convincing,’ a standard that requires a higher level of certainty.”

Because of that higher standard, the inspector general said Peace Corps country directors could benefit if they could subject workers to “reasonable suspicion drug testing.”

Matthew Sheehey, an agency spokesman, said volunteers are not drug tested, but staffers with security clearances are subject to random testing.

The inspector general also suggested that the agency collect better drug use data. “Lack of such information obscures the scope of drug use among Volunteers and remains an obstacle to prioritizing and addressing the problem,” the report said.

“Drug use among Peace Corps Volunteers risks damaging host-country relations and has led to foreign incarceration, loss of life, and the premature departure from service of many Volunteers,” the report concluded. “The Peace Corps’ policy has placed a unique level of urgency on Volunteer drug use by requiring that every case of drug involvement be brought to the attention of the Peace Corps Director, yet the agency’s action has not been proportional to the urgency placed on the problem.”