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Military drug tests get tough on spice

Dec. 21, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The Defense Department has officially changed its random urinalysis tests to include spice on its list of drugs for which to screen.
The Defense Department has officially changed its random urinalysis tests to include spice on its list of drugs for which to screen. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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No more holiday spice for the troops this year.

No more holiday spice for the troops this year.

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No more holiday spice for the troops this year.

The Defense Department has officially changed its random urinalysis tests to include the synthetic marijuana substance known as spice on its list of drugs for which to screen.

The move comes after an internal Pentagon study found that about 2.5 percent — or 35,000 service members — probably were smoking the widely available drug.

Starting today, spice will be included with the traditional list of prohibited drugs such as real marijuana, cocaine and others, said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

Any service members who test positive for spice will be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and would likely face a form of non-judicial punishment and possible separation, Warren said.

Command concerns about spice date back to at least 2010, as reports surfaced that some troops were smoking it in part because the military’s drug tests could not detect it.

But it’s taken years to develop a force-wide test for spice, in part because the drug was so unfamiliar to doctors and chemists and the limited options were expensive, a Pentagon spokeswoman said.

“Two years ago, the testing procedures in place were manpower-intensive, costly, and prevented large-scale testing,” said Joy Crabaugh, a Defense Department spokeswoman. “In 2012, several commercial testing products became available. … This provided the breakthrough to facilitate large-scale screening of service member specimens as part of the normal urinalysis testing program.”

For years, spice and similar products such as “K-2” were sold quietly, and openly, in some smoke shops and convenience stores. Spice is made by spraying or soaking common herbs in a synthetic chemical that when smoked induces a high similar to naturally grown marijuana.

The Drug Enforcement Agency in 2012 banned several of the chemical compounds commonly used to make popular varieties of spice.

But many experts say its producers can make small changes to the chemical compounds to technically make it legal. Health experts fear that the rate at which new synthetic drugs can be created outpaces the ability to create drug tests to identify users.

Service members are subject to routine and random drug tests, and the frequency varies depending on operational tempo and commanders’ discretion.

The internal Pentagon study suggesting about 2.5 percent of the force was testing positive for spice was conducted by randomly checking military urine samples with a version of the test.

That study suggests the use of spice among troops was far more widespread than other drugs. Typically, less than 1 percent of military urine samples show evidence of any form of illegal drug use.

Newer data suggests the use of spice among troops has fallen dramatically, Warren said.

Over the past several years, military officials have launched a massive information campaign designed to discourage troops from using the drug. The Navy in particular has been public about its crackdown; last year, for example, the sea service busted 16 sailors aboard the amphibious transport dock New Orleans who were smoking spice.

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