Packets of spice, advertised as herbal incense. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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What they are: Synthetic marijuana, often known as “K2” or “Spice,” and bath salts are often sold in legal retail outlets as “herbal incense” and “plant food,” respectively.
They are labeled “not for human consumption” to mask their intended purpose and avoid regulatory oversight by the Food and Drug Administration.
They are marketed toward young people as a “legal” high. Numerous State and local public health authorities and poison control centers have issued health warnings about the adverse health effects associated with synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones.
Synthetic marijuana: Consists of plant material laced with synthetic cannabinoids that users claim mimic tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive active ingredient in marijuana.
Bath salts: Contain man-made chemicals related to amphetamines that often consist of methylenedioxypyrovalerone, mephedrone and methylone, also known as substituted cathinones.
Life just got tougher for soldiers who use spice, bath salts and other synthetic drugs.
Company commanders now have authority to order urine tests for these drugs, power once limited to law enforcement officials.
Army Secretary John McHugh approved the new policy, which allows company commanders to order a soldier to be tested to ensure he is fit for duty or if there is probable cause to do so, a determination a commander would make with his or her staff legal adviser.
Although the Army banned the drugs last year, the service lacked the resources to perform widespread testing, and only law enforcement agents were able to order the tests. Essentially, a soldier would have to have been caught red-handed to be tested.
“There would have to have been evidence, they found it in a barracks or a traffic stop or a soldier smoking it in the barracks,” said Buddy Horne, drug testing manager for the Army Substance Abuse Program, based at Fort Knox, Ky.
The Air Force is helping the Army carry out its crackdown. Under a deal between the two services, the Air Force is using its new high-tech laboratory equipment to test the Army’s urine samples for synthetic drugs. The move brings the Army in line with the other armed services, which each expanded their drug screening programs to include command-directed tests for synthetic drugs.
Army officials say the expanded testing program allows it to better gauge how prevalent the new drugs are, deter would-be users and close a significant gap.
In 2012, Army Criminal Investigation Command conducted 1,675 investigations involving soldiers and spice, bath salts or other synthetic drugs.
Though designer drugs are banned by the military, they appear to be growing in popularity and are available online, in tobacco shops and convenience stores.
Most standard drug screens have been unable to detect the compounds used to make them, and the legality that surrounds them is hazy. Manufacturers design the formulas of these drugs to mimic the effects of existing drugs and tweak the formulas in an expensive cat-and-mouse game with the law.
The Army is attempting to learn more about how manufacturers are altering their formulas to skirt the law, and to see how prevalent the drug is within the service. The Army first tested 10,000 soldiers’ urine samples submitted in 2012, before spice was outlawed, and 2.5 percent contained compounds associated with spice.
As a follow-up, the Army plans to study 3,000 urine samples from soldiers by midsummer to determine whether there was a shift from illegal formulations of the drug to formulations that are still legal.
On Fort Gordon, Ga., where police investigated 18 cases that involved spice in 2012, service members did not know the drug was illegal, perhaps because they purchased it openly in a local convenience store. The post is an advanced individual training installation with a large population of young soldiers fresh from basic training, and some were drawn to spice packages at a local convenience store with images of seminude women or military camouflage patterns on them.
“Service members were purchasing spice because it was legal in Georgia,” said Lt. Col. Hollis Bush, the post provost marshal.
A number of posts like Fort Gordon had been addressing the problem through public information campaigns and by making establishments that sell synthetic drugs off-limits to service members. Since Georgia began enforcing its statewide ban on the drug, Fort Gordon authorities have not seen any cases.
No random screening
Tests for the drugs remain absent from the Defense Department’s standard panel for random drug screenings because detecting the drugs would require advanced technology at a significant expense to the military. The Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, a joint agency that performs medical testing, is evaluating costly new testing instrumentation with plans to recommend its use, eventually.
“It comes down to funding, and right now, funding is tough to come by for normal operations, let alone to consider expanding operations,” said Timothy Lyons, chief of AFMES’s Division of Forensic Toxicology. “The desire and the need is there, but ... until we obtain funding, we can do small steps.”
The military periodically alters its tests to reflect the changing chemical makeup of synthetic drugs found in the field. In February 2012, the proportion of positive tests at AFMES peaked at 76 percent and then dropped month by month to 12 percent by December — until the Division of Forensic Toxicology added new compounds in February and March, when it jumped to 63 percent.
“I think this approach by the drug manufacturers is here to stay, and in order to have an effective program, we’re going to have to continue to correspond by having a very flexible, dynamic testing regimen,” Lyons said. “It’s very expensive, very time-consuming and you’re constantly having to come up with new tests and new instrumentation.”
Another hurdle to widespread testing is that the scientific community lacks established thresholds to determine whether an amount of a particular drug in the bloodstream came from ingesting it, say, or by passive exposure from inhaling it secondhand.
Because the absence of such thresholds complicates military prosecutions, commanders are meting out administrative punishments, which require a lower burden of proof, Lyons said.
Air Force aids crackdown
The Defense Department banned spice for service members in 2010, and expanded that last year to all synthetic drugs. Later in 2012, Congress banned the sale of synthetic drugs nationwide.
Since March 2011, AFMES, at Dover Air Force Base, Del., had conducted law enforcement-directed testing and would process 30 samples per month per service.
Under the expanded testing, the Army’s urine samples are screened at the drug testing laboratory at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The lab began command-directed probable-cause testing for spice in March 2012, and recently gained the ability to test for bath salts. It uses two liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometers, which can separate compounds in a mixture and determine how much of each the mixture contains.
Air Force Lt. Col. Michelle Ewy, the lab commander, said she can test 2,500 specimens per month, and has the potential to double that amount to 60,000 samples per year. The lab can detect metabolites of the most common spice and bath salts on the market and perform a secondary screen on each specimen for more than 35 other associated compounds.
AFMES had been testing for each service and continues to test for the Navy and Marines. The Navy spent more than $2 million last year to build a new laboratory at AFMES, with the equipment to expand to probable-cause command-directed testing for the Navy and Marine Corps, as well as investigative cases.
For the Navy, the new testing for spice and bath salts, like marijuana, has yielded a low proportion of positives — less than 1 percent — and Lyons said he expects similar numbers for the Army once the Army’s tests are processed over a similar period at Lackland.
“With investigative cases, the proportion of positives is high, but you would expect that because these are people who are being caught with spice or are identified as a spice user,” Lyons said. “Those positive rates are around 60 percent. But these are people with spice in their pocket.”
Health dangers unknown
The long-term health effects of these drugs are unknown, and there remains a risk that the effects can vary among varieties.
In one case of soldier spice abuse, then-Spc. Bryan Roudebush in 2010 beat his girlfriend and nearly threw her from the balcony of her Waikiki, Hawaii, home after smoking the substance.
In a recent study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 16 people in six states developed acute kidney injuries last year after using synthetic cannabinoids. All were hospitalized, and five required dialysis.
During a nine-month period in 2010, the National Poison Data System received 1,898 reports of poisonings following synthetic cannabis inhalation, according to the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine.