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Officials cope with new drug craze

Oct. 2, 2010 - 12:36PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 2, 2010 - 12:36PM  |  
"Pulse" is one brand of an herbal blend known as spice
"Pulse" is one brand of an herbal blend known as spice (Randy Davey)
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The Army has launched a crackdown on the drug spice at least nine commands in response to a spike in usage among soldiers.

A designer drug that mimics marijuana, spice is legal in most states, and is available for sale in smoke shops and online for around $50 for three ounces.

What's more, spice is undetectable by most urinalyses.

The Army is also keeping a watchful eye on another noncontrolled substance called salvia, which is a hallucinogen.

Spice is also known as K2 or by any number of colorful brand names — "Red Ball," "Blowout," "Cahoots," "Chill" or "Spike 99," to name a few — and is sold in foil packets or plastic canisters. Brands often bear a warning label that state that contents are an incense and are not to be smoked, which is disingenuous at best, say law enforcement sources.

Spice has been outlawed in 13 states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and, as of July, Hawaii, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Several variants of spice are illegal in Germany and some other European nations.

Following anecdotal reports from post commanders that soldiers were using spice, Training and Doctrine Command commanding general Gen. Martin Dempsey issued an Army-wide warning in 2009 calling attention to the growing problem and empowering commanders to pass their own policies.

In the Army, use of noncontrolled intoxicants, including natural substances, is prohibited under Army Regulation 600-85, which governs the service's substance abuse program.

Since the TRADOC warning, at least nine commanders have issued policies to explicitly ban spice and other noncontrolled substances. Army Times found such policies at Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Carson, Colo.; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Polk, La.; Fort Irwin, Calif.; Fort Sam Houston, Texas; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.; U.S. Army-Hawaii; and U.S. Army-Pacific.

Violating these policies is equivalent to failing to obey an order, which is punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Although Army officials have said that spice use is rising, it is unclear exactly how widespread it has become. The Army is not tracking the number of soldiers who have been disciplined in connection with spice, according to Army spokesman George Wright.

Col. Karen O'Brien, TRADOC surgeon, said drugs, even legal ones, run counter to Army policy and its new institutional emphasis on resilience, healthy behavior and suicide prevention.

"We're trying to promote a strong, resilient Army — an Army that's been at war for a decade — and part of being a resilient, strong Army is soldiers with the tools to take care of themselves … without having to rely on illicit substances to cope with their stress," O'Brien said.

Laws that target synthetic cannabinoids vary from state to state, targeting different compounds. Army regulations have tended to refer to synthetic cannabinoids by brand names and not their scientific nomenclature.

On July 8, U.S. Army-Pacific banned the use, possession, distribution and purchase of spice, among other psychoactive substances, said Loran D. Doane, spokesman for U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii. Failure to comply violates UCMJ Article 92 and can lead to disciplinary or administrative action, ranging from a reprimand to a dishonorable discharge.

Doane said USARPAC's commanders, senior noncommissioned officers and commanders' substance abuse experts now receive education about spice. Spice training has also been incorporated into briefings for newly arrived soldiers and their families. "For some, this is the first they have ever heard of it," he said.

"Because this drug is fairly new, the Army has taken a very proactive stance on addressing its dangers," Doane said. "We want our soldiers and their family members to fully understand that this drug is 66 to 800 times more powerful than marijuana and possesses the same addictive qualities associated with most street drugs."

Virginia-based defense attorney Philip Cave, who said he has represented dozens of military personnel in spice cases, said they were typically resolved administratively, often with an Article 15 discharge.

Cave called the military's reaction a "witch hunt." He noted that there is little research about the effects of these drugs on safety, while other known intoxicants with known negative effects, like alcohol, remain legal.

"What I find interesting is that some of these new substances that are prohibited by the military have the same impact as beer, coffee, the millions of over-the-counter prescriptions you get at the pharmacy on base," Cave said.

Fort Benning police chief Kevin Clarke said he has seen in the past two years seven to 10 seizures of spice or salvia, a hallucinogen also considered a noncontrolled substance. Because the Army cannot test for the use of spice, the post's ban on possession has been a vital tool, he said.

"If I find this baggie in your car and it's marked for sale, because it's a retail product, and if it says ‘salvia' or ‘spice,' I don't have to prove anything else," he said.

Clarke said that drugs like spice, legal or not, are no good for soldiers.

"As a soldier, we work in a very hazardous profession, and we have to take extra precautions, and this is not a substance that would be good to use when you're in a hazardous profession," Clarke said. "It's too dangerous."

Designer drug

When spice first appeared on Army posts in 2008, investigators were baffled. They sent samples to the Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Georgia. Lab examiner Lee Fadness said they were baffled there, too — at least at first.

"We saw several cases in 2008, we weren't sure what it was, we knew it wasn't controlled," Fadness said. "We'd seen enough of it that we thought this is becoming unusual."

By year's end, European scientists determined that the herbs in spice are laced with chemicals called synthetic cannabinoids, and the Army lab took notice. Like tetrahydrocannabinol — THC, the active ingredient in marijuana —synthetic cannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and other organs, evoking a marijuanalike psychoactive response.

Medical researchers and drug companies had developed dozens of synthetic cannabinoids to explore their potentially pain-relieving effects. And makers of spice have taken advantage, continuously switching between the types of synthetic cannabinoids to stay ahead of the law.

Although detection is tricky for law enforcement because data on many of the types are scarce, a handful of private labs say they have urinalyses that detect at least a few of them, and according to Fadness, forensic scientists continuously share data on new types via Internet message boards to aid evidence analyses.

"A couple of times this week, people have asked, ‘Have you seen this? I found this in an herbal smoking mixture,'Ÿ" Fadness said. "Everybody will try to look at it, try to figure out what it is. That's happening often."

And because spice is not manufactured using any single compound or common method, its effects can be unpredictable or dangerous, said Fadness.

"There's no quality control there," he said. "They take one of these cannabinoids, dissolve it in a solvent, and they add it to the herbal mixture, but you don't know how much they added to it. You might get one batch with a few milligrams or there might be 10 or 20 times that."

Though there have been no human studies of synthetic cannabinoids, the European Union study says they are potentially very harmful. It notes that THC is only a partial cannabinoid; synthetic cannabinoids may prove stronger and carry a heavier risk of dependence and overdose.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers has logged 1,340 spice-related calls to poison control centers nationwide this year.

Christopher Rosenbaum, a toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts who is studying spice use in the Midwest, said many emergency room patients admitted for spice intoxication show life-threatening symptoms, such as racing heart rates and spiking blood pressure.

"Agitation, anxiety, seizures, vomiting — these are some of the things we are seeing," he said. "Some patients are so agitated they have to be sedated multiple times."

Skirting the law

Though popular in Europe since at least 2004, spice has caught U.S. authorities off guard. It isn't yet tracked in national drug abuse or emergency room databases, according to Dr. Marilyn A. Huestis, of the National Institutes of Health, and there are no federal laws regulating most of the substances.

The drug seems to be most popular among young people and those who are worried about regular drug tests, said Huestis. "It's anecdotal, but ... a lot of police, firemen and military consume it," she said. "But there is still no good epidemiological data to track that."

Federal regulations will likely catch up with spice, but that could take two years or more, said Gary Boggs, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration's diversion department.

The DEA now lists five synthetic cannabinoids as "drugs of concern." Just one, HU-210, is illegal across the U.S., and DEA scientists are investigating the others to determine how they affect a person's mind and body.

Fadness speculated the challenge for law enforcement will be staying ahead of new varieties of synthetic cannabinoids as they emerge. The federal government could outlaw the entire category, Fadness conceded, but that could be "problematic" for pharmaceuticals research.

"You don't want to control everything in the world because some of it has legitimate research use," he said. "There's a line between trying to protect people and stopping research completely. There are problems, but you would think something along that line would have to be done if it is to be controlled."">RELATED: Legal high becomes "horrible" dream

Staff writer from reader">James K. Sanborn of Marine Corps Times contributed to this report.

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