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Hawaii News

‘Spice’ traps troops

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MARTHA HERNANDEZ / MHERNANDEZ@STARADVERTISER.COM
Substances such as “K2” and “Spice” are made with synthesized compounds similar to the active ingredient in marijuana.
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"Bath Salts" that can simulate the effects of cocaine and meth­am­pheta­mine have grown increasingly popular with military personnel. The compounds can cause severe health problems and hallucinations.

Schofield Barracks soldier Spc. Bryan Roudebush smoked the designer drug "Spice" and then beat his girlfriend and tried to throw her off an 11th-floor balcony in Waikiki.

He said in court he didn’t remember what happened that night in April 2010.

Synthetic cannabinoids, including Spice and K2, and so-called "Bath Salts" laced with drugs that cause effects similar to cocaine and meth­am­pheta­mine, are being increasingly abused by military members looking to beat tests that screen for traditional drugs but not synthetics, officials say.

Despite the lack of random testing, the Navy Region Hawaii Criminal Investigation Division has handled seven synthetic drug-related investigations involving at least 40 suspected users in Hawaii in the past year.

The Air Force recently became the first service to start randomly screening for designer drugs in urinalysis tests, officials in Hawaii said.

The high that individuals are seeking from the drugs also can bring a raft of serious side effects, including anxiety attacks, rapid heart rate, vomiting, disorientation, hallucinations, paranoia and suicidal thoughts, and some alarming behavior has followed.

In one case a man in Mississippi got high on Bath Salts, hallucinated and repeatedly sliced his face and stomach with a skinning knife.

David Rozga, 18, of Iowa killed himself after using K2 purchased at a mall.

The military, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Congress and state lawmakers are scrambling to get a handle on drug compounds that are easily obtained, can easily be modified to keep them legal and are readily available in stores and on the Internet.

"The number of incidents of designer drug usage is rising at an alarming rate in our Navy," Adm. John C. Harvey, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said in January.

In the four months before his statement, 72 Pacific Fleet sailors had been accused of using or possessing the drugs. The Navy said in February that it was discharging 16 sailors on the Norfolk, Va.-based amphibious assault ship Bataan for using or dealing in Spice.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., leaders of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on March 29 saying that while they applaud recent efforts to control Spice use by the nation’s military, "We are afraid that K2 and Spice pose a risk to the operational readiness of our armed forces."

Grassley, Feinstein and others introduced legislation to ban the chemicals used to make Spice, which has become a catchall name for the new synthetic drugs.

The Air Force said there have been six Spice cases at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam resulting in nonjudicial punishment and/or administrative discharge since January, compared with two Spice cases in 2010. Hickam did not have any Spice cases before 2010, officials said.

The military is a big customer for Spice and Bath Salts.

Hawaii’s Natural High shop owner Greg Azus said he doesn’t sell synthetic drugs, but he gets one or two military members a day stopping by his Waikiki store asking for them.

"It’s consistent," Azus said. "It’s like I know what they are going to ask." He added that "you can pretty much tell" the individuals are in the military because of their short hair and appearance.

He said that he probably gets as many requests these days for Bath Salts as for Spice.

"I’m not into (selling) that," Azus said. "A lot of people are greedy, and they sell it. It’s not something that’s good for you, and it’s not something that I want to have anything to do with."

Other businesses on the island are selling it — and some are getting arrested.

Undercover Honolulu police purchased Bath Salts in Wahiawa and Waikiki two weeks ago and made an arrest at each spot, said police spokes­woman Michelle Yu. The precise locations were not available.

Alan Johnson, president of the Hina Mauka Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center, said there’s a shop in Kane­ohe that sells Spice and similar drugs.

"The community has called me a couple of times to say they are alarmed and want to know what they can do about it," he said.

Federal and state authorities have found themselves in a cat-and-mouse game with the manufacturers of Spice, who alter the chemical composition slightly to stay one step ahead of prohibitions.

The DEA used emergency powers last month to list as controlled substances five chemicals used in synthetic cannabinoids, including JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47,497 and cannabicyclohexanol, and make them illegal to sell.

The compounds, synthesized in the 1980s and 1990s and similar to the main active ingredient in marijuana, are often sprayed on plant material to be smoked, even though packages are labeled as incense and "not for human consumption." Many originate from foreign sources.

Spice first started to show up in the United States in late 2008. The DEA said the drugs can be extremely harmful due to a "high pharmacological potency."

"There is little information regarding the pharmacology, toxicology and safety of these substances in humans given the minimal amount of pre-clinical investigations," the agency said.

Hina Mauka’s Johnson said, "You think, ‘Well, I’ve got a mild high and it’s legal,’ not knowing that you might be more seriously altering your brain chemistry."

Scientists are able to provide retailers with "legal" products by developing new synthetic cannabinoid products that are not covered under state or federal rules. The DEA estimates there are potentially more than 100 such products yet to be introduced in the marketplace.

Realk2incense.com sells three grams of K2 Ultra Incense for $39.95 and advertises that "our products contain no DEA banned substances."

Last August, Hawaii banned a variety of Spice compounds as well as Mephedrone, one of the synthetic stimulants in Bath Salts that are smoked, snorted or injected. Bath Salts go by names that include Zoom, Ivory Wave, Red Dove and Vanilla Sky. Spice variants are outlawed in 18 states.

Each of the four military branches has also banned the use of the synthetics.

Keith Kamita, deputy director of law enforcement for the state Department of Public Safety, said the state took its cue from the military on synthetic drug prohibition.

"We worked with the (Naval Criminal Investigative Service). They told us about the problems they were seeing in the military," Kamita said.

In February the Air Force became the first service to start testing for five compounds in Spice during random urinalysis screening, officials said.

"It was just a few months ago we weren’t able to detect it, and now we are," said Patsy Torres, the drug demand reduction program manager for the Air Force at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. "So as the technology progresses, we’re going to continue to be able to detect the different varieties."

Agnes Tauyan, a spokes­woman for Navy Region Hawaii, said general Navy drug tests do not detect Spice and other designer substances, but the drugs can be confirmed with a different test if an individual is suspected of use.

The Armed Forces Medical Examiner System is working with the Navy to develop testing for new substances, and the Navy is conducting research "to determine the additional cost to improve the technology of the Navy urinalysis test and program," Tau­yan said.

Pam Jinnohara, Army Substance Abuse Program manager in Hawaii, said the Army does not routinely test for Spice use here.

"In special circumstances (the Armed Forces Medical Examiner) will test only investigative cases for synthetic cannabinoids," Jinnohara said. "In order to qualify for testing, the case must be coordinated in advance by an investigative agent and have an active investigation number."

Not all service members caught using Spice are kicked out of the military. Edwards Air Force Base in California released earlier this month a list of nonjudicial punishment for the first quarter of 2011.

Nine of the cases involved Spice use, two were alcohol related and one was for marijuana. All of the Spice cases involved a reduction in grade and a reprimand.

In 2010, for all Air Force personnel, 177 received nonjudicial punishment for using Spice, and another 83 faced Spice charges at courts-martial.

Navy Capt. Albert S. Janin, commanding officer of the Navy Region Hawaii Legal Service Office, said it doesn’t take a drug test to make a case with Spice use.

The minority who use the drugs can come under scrutiny from those who don’t, and an investigation can ensue, Janin said.

"One person will finally acknowledge responsibility, and they, in turn, know five other people who may have used it," he said. "Our investigators just systematically follow the fact trail, and that’s how we have been able to identify most of them."

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