All 16 sailors on amphibious assault ship Bataan were given nonjudicial punishment and are or will be administratively discharged. (MC3 Brian Goodwin / Navy)
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Sixteen sailors assigned to the Norfolk-based amphibious assault ship Bataan are getting the boot for using or dealing the service-banned synthetic marijuana generally known as "spice," the Navy confirmed Thursday.
The busts follow an eight-week investigation launched in November aboard the huge warship, according to Lt. Cmdr. Bill Urban, spokesman for Surface Force Atlantic.
Fifteen of the sailors were given nonjudicial punishment for failing to obey the Navy's ban on spice and are or will be administratively discharged. Urban, correcting earlier information that all 16 had been so punished, subsequently reported that a 16th sailor was convicted at a summary court-martial aboard Bataan for failing to obey the ban, as well as for alcohol abuse and unauthorized absence, and also is being discharged.
"The Navy has a zero tolerance policy on drug abuse," Urban said in a statement. "Drug use undercuts unit readiness and morale, and is inconsistent with our Navy core values of honor, courage and commitment."
The busts, first reported by Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot newspaper, come during a week when the Navy has made a proactive effort to publicize and stem a growing problem with spice, a marijuana-like herbal blend that can be smoked and is sold under a wide variety of names. It yields a euphoric high, but can produce anxiety attacks or worse in some users.
According to Fleet Forces Command, as of Jan. 26, at least 151 sailors Navy-wide had been accused of using or caught with spice over the past four months, with 79 of those in Fleet Forces Command. Figures for previous years have not been made available.
In January, seven midshipmen were expelled from the Naval Academy for using or selling spice.
Fleet Forces chief Adm. John Harvey has called the number of incidents "alarming" and said the Navy is cracking down.
"If you are considering using spice or a similar drug, I strongly urge you to reconsider," Harvey said in a statement that accompanied release of the fiscal year figures. "If you are caught using it, even once, you will be separated from the Navy. There is no second chance."
Spice has quickly grown in popularity over the past few years. Only a few of the wide variety of chemical compounds in spice products can be detected through urinalysis testing, and none of the results can as yet be used as the basis for disciplinary action, officials say. And it remains readily available in the Hampton Roads area despite last fall's decision by Navy Region Mid-Atlantic to place 10 local retailers off limits for selling the pricey products, as less-specialized retailers continue to carry the substance, which is also widely available online.
But last year, chief of naval operations Adm. Gary Roughead signed off on an order prohibiting the possession or use of the so-called "designer drugs." In addition, Bataan sailors last March were required to sign a statement of understanding acknowledging the ban and the consequences.
The Drug Enforcement Agency does not yet list spice as a controlled substance but in November temporarily placed five versions of spice on the list in anticipation of making it a Schedule 1 controlled drug on a par with marijuana and heroin. It remains legal in Virginia, although several bills banning the substances are pending in the General Assembly.