Urine testing in the Navy from March to July turned up nearly 150 users of spice or other designer drugs. (MC2 Mark Logico / Navy)
The frigate Crommelin should have been good for one more deployment. But then that last cruise went up in smoke. Spice smoke, to be precise.
The new synthetic drug caught on among Crommelin sailors in 2010 and quickly spread. During a port call in Singapore that year, one crew member collected cash from his shipmates and went out and bought spice to share around the ship. By early this year, that sailor's roommate had turned him in, leading to the busts of 12 other sailors. As a result, 7 percent of the ship's 175-man complement had been booted.
The losses led to maintenance deficiencies, then poor inspections reports. Crommelin's chance for a final cruise never materialized. The frigate Vandegrift deployed instead in May, and Crommelin's decommissioning was moved up from 2013 to October.
Spice, unheard of just a few years ago, is now the drug of choice among sailors and other troops looking to get high but hoping to evade drug tests. Random urinalysis tests collected from March 21 to July 13 turned up 147 sailors using popular designer drugs such as spice, which attempts to mimic the properties of marijuana, and bath salts, which are marketed as perfumed crystals but are consumed for a cocaine-like high.
Sailors are 27 times more likely to use those drugs than any other illegal drug, according to Navy statistics.
The need for a reliable test to identify spice use has been known for some time, and the Navy seems to have finally found one that works, said Juan Garcia, assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs, in an interview with Navy Times.
There was "a perception among many sailors and midshipmen that we couldn't test for [spice]," Garcia said. "And there was something to that for a long time. It was a moving target; it was constantly changing because of the producers or the manufacturers."
Operations Specialist 1st Class (SW/AW) Steven Manning, who doubles as Crommelin's urinalysis coordinator, said just having a test makes a difference, because the threat of a random sample acts as an effective deterrent to trying the drug.
"The No. 1 thing is just making [a] test for it — testing on a regular basis, just like regular urinalysis," he said.
The Navy plans to up testing to 3,000 samples per month later this summer. Efforts continue to find newer, more improved tests that can detect more compounds.
The drug problem is not unique to the Navy, and Garcia said efforts are underway to coordinate Defense Department-led testing, thereby cutting costs on administering it. This could free up money for developing better tests, Garcia said.
In the Navy, the spice tests cost $70 per sample and are collected separately from the standard drug test, a Navy official said. Garcia said he expects that by fiscal 2014, spice will be a part of the Navy's standard urinalysis test.
Designer-drug makers try to stay ahead of the tests, regularly switching up their formulas to skirt the Drug Enforcement Agency and other efforts to control or ban their products.
"That makes it difficult to keep up with them," said Marilyn Huestis, senior investigator and the chief of the Chemistry and Drug Metabolism Section, Clinical Pharmacology and therapeutics Research Branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "It's a lot of effort to try and have those methods always up to speed with the latest drugs."
In June, the DEA added 26 compounds commonly found in synthetic marijuana blends to its list of controlled substances, bolstering an earlier ban on five substances the DEA enacted with emergency regulatory powers. The expansion was necessary as spice makers adjusted their recipes.
Meanwhile, drug makers and marketers aren't subtle about trying to stay a step ahead of the feds. One online retailer advertised a synthetic marijuana blend with this pitch: "Beat the oppressive DEA ban with our newly improved herbal incense!" Said another: "This new formulation is legal throughout the U.S.A. and most countries worldwide."
Garcia said he knows what he's up against, but that the Navy isn't going to give in.
"We are on the offensive here … by continuing to explore the numbers of compounds we can detect," he said.
So far, one ironic factor holding up better tests has been worry over the risks of spice use in the first place. The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees such tests, won't let researchers test synthetic cannabinoids on human subjects, Huestis said, because not enough is known about each drug's toxicity.
But the dearth of information about these substances shouldn't be seen as a way to use them without getting into trouble, but rather as a major deterrent, Huestis said.
"That's what's so frightening about people using the drugs," she said, "since we don't know much about the short-term or the long-term effects."
The military can presently scan for eight key compounds used to make spice and bath salts, Garcia said.
If a sailor tests positive for spice or another drug, his command may start an investigation and take further disciplinary action, said Dorice Favorite, the head of the Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse prevention program.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is also alerted, and NCIS agents gather intelligence to root out other users or sellers.
There are a lot of them:
In June alone, NCIS opened 90 spice investigations, a spokesman said.
The investigations usually yield results, Garcia said.
"Once you start investigating, you find other evidence such as paraphernalia, or another sailor comes forward and speaks," he said. "And the house of cards folds in."
Navy bases continue to ban sailors from visiting stores that sell spice and related products. But these efforts tend to be ineffective, sailors said. Instead of avoiding these stores, sailors looking for spice use the list as a shopping guide.
Leaders keep trying to make clear the risks of spice, but it's not clear those efforts are working.
"We have been warning sailors that are thinking about experimenting with drugs that eventually they're going to get caught," said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert in a July statement. "We have zero tolerance for drug use, including designer and synthetic drugs like spice."
Toll on the fleet
The Navy is trying to put out another message as well: Sailors who smoke spice can have far-reaching effects on the service.
OS1 Stevens, on Crommelin, describes the "huge hit" his division took after spice use on his ship was discovered and the guilty were sent packing.
"It was hard to get bodies back," he said. "When the Navy finally realized, and did what they had to do to get us bodies, I was getting E-1s straight out of boot camp. They had no knowledge, no experience."
Gas Turbine Systems Technician (Mechanical) 1st Class (SW) Keohokea Cordeira, also of Crommelin, echoed Stevens' comments, and said the drug also poses risks at sea.
During Crommelin's last deployment, one of Cordeira's sailors had an incident where he spilled fuel all over the mess deck. That same sailor was later busted as one of the ship's spice smokers. Cordeira can't say for sure whether spice played a role in the spill, but it sticks with him as a warning.
Crommelin's top enlisted sailor confirmed that spice smoking was occurring while the guided-missile frigate was underway.
"It's just a matter of time before there's an incident," Command Master Chief (SW/AW) Scott deLage said, referring to the Navy at large. "These kids were standing watch, smoking this stuff, when they were supposed to be providing security or monitoring equipment."
And if you think it's only those boneheaded sailors smoking up, think again.
When Crommelin's investigation was underway, deLage said he was disturbed to see some names of up-and-comers implicated.
"Looking at the list of kids we had — I had one in particular that absolutely shocked me," he said. "He was a stellar sailor being groomed for positions of much greater responsibility."
Now, his career is ruined.
The bad news for sailors who use spice is that they'll likely be made examples.
"The more it's publicized that people are getting caught and are getting discharged — and are getting other than honorable or dishonorable discharge — eventually it will sink in," deLage said. "But, it's going to take time."
Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Mark D. Faram contributed to this story.