Naval Academy expels seven in drug case involving 'spice'

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; B04

Seven midshipmen have been expelled from the U.S. Naval Academy for possessing or using "spice," a relatively new recreational drug that has yet to take hold on most other college campuses.

Also Wednesday, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced the settlement of a First Amendment complaint by an academy professor who said he was denied a merit raise after he publicly criticized school policies on minority applicants. The terms of the settlement, involving English professor Bruce Fleming, were not disclosed.

The midshipmen in the drug case were "separated" from the service academy in Annapolis on Jan. 20 for violating the Navy's zero-tolerance policies, Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, an academy spokesman, said Wednesday.

Unlike most colleges, the Naval Academy tests students at random for drugs in their urine, but such tests cannot detect spice. That might explain why the drug, sometimes called "synthetic marijuana" and sold under the brand names Spice and K2, has appeared in the brigade while it remains relatively unknown on some other Washington area campuses.

Until recently, spice was legal. States have rushed to outlaw it, and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has banned five substances commonly found in the chemical potpourri. Spice is also banned by the Navy.

"A lot of people who are on drug testing are very interested in it," said Irina Alexander, a recent University of Maryland graduate who chairs the international organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Alexander said she hadn't heard of the drug making inroads at U-Md. or any other local college campus, mostly because marijuana is readily available.

A student government leader at College Park said he surveyed several friends Wednesday and found none who had heard of spice. A student leader at George Washington University said he had to look it up in the Urban Dictionary.

Spice has appeared in head shops and gas stations in the past decade, marketed as incense but sold at a price that suggested other properties. Some who have smoked it describe an experience akin to a cannabis high, albeit shorter and less predictable.

The drug is so new that no one knows much about its use on - or off - college campuses.

"Not only has there not been reporting done, there hasn't been research done on it, either," said Erin Artigiani, deputy director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at U-Md.

In Annapolis, allegations against the seven midshipmen were brought to brigade leaders "by other midshipmen" last fall, Carpenter said in e-mailed comments. He did not rule out further expulsions.

"This remains an ongoing investigation, and any additional allegations will be fully investigated," Carpenter said. "Where allegations are substantiated, violators will be held accountable."

Academy leaders did not identify the expelled students, except to say that they were sophomore and junior males.

Drug violations are uncommon at the 4,000-student academy. Aside from the seven students recently expelled, four others have been cited for offenses in the past year. The expelled students could face discharge from the Navy and might have to repay the cost of their education, which is paid by the federal government.

The First Amendment case concerns an article by Fleming that was published in the Annapolis Capital newspaper in June 2009. In the article, Fleming said the academy operated a two-tiered admission system that favored minority applicants.

Three months later, Fleming "learned that he was being denied a merit pay increase that year, although his immediate supervisor had recommended him for one," according to a release from the Office of Special Counsel.

The agency's probe "uncovered evidence indicating that USNA illegally denied the employee a merit pay increase because of his public statements," the release said.

One academy official told faculty members that Fleming "should not be rewarded" for going public. A subsequent warning letter advised the professor that he could face disciplinary action if he continued "making inappropriate statements," the release said.

Carpenter said in a statement that the academy "subscribes to and continues to support the academic freedoms afforded faculty."

Fleming said he pursued the case "to ensure that an institution whose military members swear to uphold the Constitution does not infringe the civilian rights to free expression the military is meant to protect."

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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