Synthetic marijuana widely used at Naval Academy, some midshipmen say

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 12:57 AM

A synthetic form of marijuana is widely used at the U.S. Naval Academy because it cannot be detected in routine drug tests, according to several former midshipmen who have been removed from campus for using or possessing the substance.

Since its introduction at the academy last year, synthetic marijuana has become popular among rank-and-file midshipmen and on the football and wrestling teams, the former midshipmen said. Some isolated corners of the historic Annapolis campus, they said, have become well-known gathering spots for smoking it.

Synthetic marijuana is an herbal potpourri sprayed with chemicals that, when smoked, produces mood-altering effects. It is illegal in at least 12 states, although not in Maryland, and is prohibited in the U.S. military, including at its service academies.

The popularity of synthetic marijuana has spawned a major investigation within the academy that has led to the expulsion of eight midshipmen, including one last week. Several of those caught up in the probe say they expect the number of midshipmen who will be "separated" - the term academy officials use for expulsion - to reach more than a dozen. A substantial number of others have used synthetic marijuana but have not been caught, these former midshipmen say.

Academy leaders acknowledge that the four-month-old investigation into synthetic marijuana use is ongoing and that more expulsions are expected. In some cases, expelled midshipmen are required to repay the government for their education.

"The Naval Academy continues to actively investigate suspected illicit drug use," Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, superintendent of the academy, said in a statement. The academy "has been and will continue to be transparent in disclosing the results of this ongoing investigation. If and when there is sufficient evidence and testimony of alleged drug use by additional midshipmen, they will be processed for separation."

The descriptions in this story are based on interviews with eight midshipmen, five of whom have left the academy because of the synthetic marijuana scandal and three of whom are still on campus. Two of them said they had never used the substance but knew others who had. All spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about sensitive matters under investigation.

Use spreading in military

The use of synthetic marijuana, which often is called "spice" after a popular brand name, is rising at an alarming rate across the military, commanders say. It cannot be detected in the random urine tests that are a routine part of military life.

Synthetic marijuana is sold in head shops and gas stations. It often is marketed as herbal incense, but at a far higher price than most incenses - typically $20 or $30 for a few grams. Midshipmen who have smoked it describe a "buzz" akin to a high from marijuana.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has banned five compounds found in the product, and Virginia's legislature recently passed a measure to criminalize it. No other state in the Washington area has done so. The bill has not been signed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The Navy's Atlantic and Pacific fleets disciplined 113 sailors for use or possession of synthetic marijuana in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. At least 180 sailors have faced allegations of using it since, according to Lt. Alana Garas, a Navy spokeswoman. Synthetic marijuana busts netted 28 sailors at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., and 15 crew members on the aircraft carrier George Washington in 2009 and 16 sailors on the amphibious assault ship Bataan this month.

The Air Force disciplined 260 of its personnel over allegations involving synthetic marijuana in 2010. Five cadets have been separated from the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and about 28 others remain under investigation for spice use, officials said.

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