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Navy faces off with spice — Former dealer says drug is pervasive among sailors and Marines

Customers enter Puffin Sam Smoke Shop on the 4200 block of Kitsap Way Wednesday. The smoke shop is one of the many local retail outlets for synthetic canibis now sold as incense. - Greg Skinner/staff photo
Customers enter Puffin Sam Smoke Shop on the 4200 block of Kitsap Way Wednesday. The smoke shop is one of the many local retail outlets for synthetic canibis now sold as incense.
— image credit: Greg Skinner/staff photo

Naval Base Kitsap has implemented no new training in response to orders from the Navy Surgeon General that all commands be fully engaged in preventing the abuse of spice, also known as synthetic marijuana, even though at least one Navy officer has called it a problem in the area.

The Surgeon General’s Aug. 2 instructions specified that all commands “Do everything in their power to increase awareness of the serious health consequences and legal ramifications” of use of the drug. The announcement came on the heels of the Navy’s July expulsion of 16 midshipmen from the Naval Academy for trafficking in the synthetic marijuana.

Tom Danaher, a spokesman for Naval Base Kitsap, said NBK personnel are subject to random urinalysis drug testing, as well as searches of their vehicles and personal quarters. Additionally, all enlisted personnel above E-5 must attend a one-and-a-half-day alcohol and drug abuse management seminar once every five years, while personnel rated E-4 and below must attend a similar half-day drug and alcohol prevention course.

The typical urinalysis tests Danaher mentioned do not detect spice, which requires more expensive testing instead, according to David Beck, medical director of Kitsap Mental Health, who has seen patients affected by the drug.

Still, according to data provided by the Washington Poison Control Center and Harrison Medical Center, although use of the drug is unquestionably on the rise in the state as a whole, there is some question as to whether spice is popular in Kitsap.

While reports to poison control are on track to more than double from 2010 for the state as a whole, they have actually decreased in Kitsap in the same period. And Harrison spokesperson Darcy Hine said that from anecdotal reports from the Hospital’s emergency room director, the drug is not something Harrison staff frequently see.

In May the Naval Medicine Center in San Diego – which serves a base similar to NBK in size – reported treating 15 patients in the preceding five months for medical issues relating to the use of spice. Some of the patients required months of inpatient treatment for persistent psychotic symptoms.

While Naval Hospital Bremerton spokesman Douglas Stutz did not return calls for comment, Danaher said that no medical cases related to spice have been encountered aboard NBK.

According to Danaher, four sailors and five Marines have been subjected to unspecified disciplinary action resulting from use or possession of the drug, in the last year.

In a July 5 column in the Northwest Navigator, Commander Tony De Alicante of the Navy Judge Advocate General’s office said that spice “continue[s] to destroy careers and lives throughout Navy Region Northwest.”

The Navy and FDA have both banned the drug beginning with March 2010, but manufacturers have evaded the civilian ban, which lists specific chemical ingredients, by slightly altering the chemical makeup of their products and labeling them as “incense” or “potpourri.”

Generally called synthetic marijuana, but also known as Spice, or K2, the drug consists of chemicals sprayed onto dried plant matter, which users then smoke. Despite its label, synthetic marijuana is considered more powerful than marijuana, and users have reported symptoms including general psychosis, extreme paranoia, fear, anxiety, and dramatic mood swings.

James Rainey,  a 19-year-old former Bremerton resident and roommate with a now deployed sailor, said he sold Spice around Bremerton for about six months. Rainey was arrested last December after he was caught on video stealing case of spice and a case cigarillos from a Bremerton gas station.

Rainey described young sailors and Marines as his best customers. With no dependents, they get that money, that check every month, said Rainey. Often, he would go from house to house, selling to as many as thirty people – most of them military – in a day.

“They got nothing to spend it on, and they go crazy for [spice],” he said.

Even though the product is available in a legal form of incense,  many of Rainey’s  military customers did not want to be seen entering area smoke shops and seen purchasing the product. Rainey said he knew his customers were in the military because they would buy from him at informal gatherings after work, and were often in uniform.

Some sailors specifically mentioned that they were buying the drug to replace marijuana habits detectable by urinalysis. Others, he said, “were so into it they’d smoke it on breaks.”

Rainey said sailors asked him for the product in a form they could use on base, or when they had to perform overnight watch. To accommodate them, Rainey would empty cigarettes or cigarillos of their tobacco, then re-pack them with spice, which is odorless.

Navy Surgeon General Vice Adm. Adam Robinson, Jr., also emphasized in his Aug. 4 announcement that commanding officers do not need a positive urinalysis to begin disciplinary proceedings.

Marketed originally as Spice’ or K2, the drug first appeared in 2000 as a “legal high.” Product materials at the time often described it as a mix of natural herbs, but later analysis found many of the products contained chemicals known as synthetic cannabinoids, including cannabicyclohexanol, JWH-018 and JWH-073.

At one area tobacco shop, a laminated copy of a letter signed by Naval Base Kitsap Commanding Officer Pete Dawson hung on the door last Thursday. Dated June 7, the letter explained the Navy prohibition of the products, including those sold legally, and threatened businesses that were reported selling the products to military personnel with boycott.

“If a business is reported to sell any of the above substances to military personnel,” the letter stated, referring to an earlier mention that included even products sold legally, “that business may be placed temporarily off-limits to military members for all purposes.”

Joey Wesner, who until earlier this year owned a market in Seabeck, said that she had received similar letters during her two years in operation, some of which included mention of the possibility of sting-type operations to identify businesses selling to Navy personnel.

In addition to the Navy and FDA bans of 2010, various states enacted their own bans throughout that year as well, including Washington, which passed an emergency ban Dec. 30.

Currently, all the bans list the exact chemical makeup of the substances they prohibit, meaning that manufacturers need only modify a product’s makeup slightly to escape the law.

Donn Moyer, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health, said he didn’t know of any plan for a new type of more generic ban on the drug.

“Its clearly going to be a continuing issue,” said Moyers, “as long as it’s going to require a specific chemical makeup, makers are going to find ways around it.”

Today the product is readily available at pipe and tobacco shops in Bremerton. One store displayed 24 different brands Thursday, packaged in rounds tins, foil bags, and plastic boxes. The products had names like GI Joe, Gi Jane, Spice Extra Strength, and Cloud 49 and  ranged in price from $17.99 to $45.99.

Each package was clearly labeled “Not for human consumption.” One brand, labeled Monkey Funky, carried an additional label that read, “Lab certified. Does not contain JWHO-18, 73, 200, CP47, 497, or any prohibited ingredients.”

Although the drug first appeared nationally several years ago, said Jim Williams of the Washington Poison Control Center, the first medical case reported to the center involving the drug in Washington State was not until 2010. In that year, the center recorded 80 calls related to the drug, said spokesman Jim Williams. In the first seven months of 2011 the center tracked 95, a 238 percent increase over the year before.

Beck, of Kitsap Mental Health, said that the effects of synthetic drugs can be severe. Within the last six months, Beck said, he had seen at least one patient put into a state of unremitting psychosis from which he or she did not recover.

Beck said his staff has difficulty gauging how widespread the use of any synthetic drug really is, because reports are usually anecdotal. And, since many recreational drug users take more than one drug at a time, he said, “It’s really hard to know in a lot of cases what … an individual may have consumed.”

The difficulties of distinguishing what a user may have taken aside, Beck said the facility had definitely seen an increase over the last year in cases of drug-induced psychosis and behavioral destabilization.

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